When Bibiana decided to quit her university studies in Columbia, she set out for France with little more than a backpack and a dream.
Her full name is Bibiana Gonzalez Rave, and she was born and raised in a middle-class family in Medellin, Columbia. Since her early teens, and against all odds in a country bereft of a strong wine culture, she dreamed of one day becoming a winemaker.
Bibiana's journey began in Cognac, France, where she talked her way into the region's school of enology. After earning a brevet de technicien superieur degree, or BTS degree, in viticulture and enology, she moved on to the University of Bordeaux, where she earned a bachelor's degree in enology and graduated with honors.
While studying in Bordeaux, Bibiana worked in the cellars of Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion, among others. Her quest for knowledge also took her to Burgundy, Alsace and the Rhône Valley; South Africa; and, eventually, California, which she now calls home.
Her first California vintage was 2004. She continued her winemaking education with stops at Au Bon Climat, La Crema, Qupe and others until she landed the top job as winemaker at Lynmar Estate in 2009, where she stayed for three years before striking out on her own.
In 2012, Rave launched Cattleya in Sonoma County, later followed by Alma de Cattleya. She also produces a brand, Shared Notes, that she makes in partnership with her husband, Jeff Pisoni, whose family has a long history of grape farming and winemaking in Monterey County.
"I think I was born to be a winemaker," she said. "It is all I have wanted to do since I was 14."
The reason I am sharing her story is quite simple. The wines are brilliant. Bibiana Gonzalez Rave's sensibilities are European. She reminds me of the legendary winemaker Merry Edwards with her focus on the vineyards and the quality of the raw material.
"We hand sort everything," she said over lunch during the recent San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival. There was a note of pride in her voice. She also pulled out a picture of a cluster of Sauvignon Blanc grapes revealing an uneven ripening pattern to demonstrate the necessity of demanding better from some grape growers.
In the event you were wondering, yes, that's what produces those tart, green, unripe flavors in some Sauvignons. She developed a passion for Sauvignon while working in Bordeaux, which is obvious from the first sip of the 2018 Shared Notes "Les Pierres Qui Decident" Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley. In a blind tasting, it could easily be mistaken for Smith Haut-Lafitte or another phenomenal Bordeaux Blanc. The price tag of $65 is hefty for a California Sauvignon but attractive when compared with a top-notch white Bordeaux.
Cattleya is focused on small-production wines from superb vineyards. They are rare, often difficult to find and priced accordingly. Alma de Cattleya, on the other hand, ranges in price from $20 to $48; there's more of it, and yet the wines remain handcrafted to Bibiana's demanding specifications.
"We only use native yeast (as opposed to cultured commercial yeast), with no fining or filtration," she explained. The result of her meticulous winemaking combined with careful oversight of her vineyard sources is a product with exceptional fruit purity, exquisite balance and remarkable freshness.
The Cattleya 2017 Cuvée Number One Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley ($50) is aromatic and pure with bright-red berry fruit, spice, and impressive depth and length on the palate. The Cattleya 2017 Cuvée Number Five Chardonnay of the Sonoma Coast ($50) is richly layered yet beautifully structured, showing notes of lemon oil, apple, pear and wood spice.
She worked in Côte Rôtie in France's Rhône Valley, and her 2016 Cattleya Soberanes Vineyard Syrah ($50) shows it. The nose delivers notes of florals and spice, while the complex palate is layered with aromas of juicy raspberry and blueberry. With a bit of aeration, a savory note emerges.
"I love making Syrah," she said, her voice rising as she once again speaks to her passion for winemaking.
In the perfect wine world, Bibiana Gonzalez Rave would be the future of winemaking in California. One can only hope.