By his own account, winemaker Joel Aiken spent half of his life working at Beaulieu Vineyard, one of the Napa Valley's most historic and famous wineries known for its classic Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and more widespread BV Coastal brand.
Beaulieu was founded in 1900 by Mr. Latour, persevered through Prohibition and will forever be linked to the great Andre Tchelistcheff, a much sought-after winemaking savant hired by Beaulieu in 1938, who remained involved until his death in 1994.
Aiken, who came to BV right after school in 1982, worked his way up to head of winemaking by 1990. He said he learned a lot from Tchelistcheff, but maybe nothing as important as the elder statesman's appreciation for learning something new every day.
"He was so humble, so great to be around," Aiken said. "He always would thank us at the end of the day. He would say, 'I learned something new today, so thank you so much.' "
This quest to learn something new every day is part of what prompted Aiken to finally break out on his own, to go back to winemaking on a smaller scale.
"At BV we had great resources, great vineyards," he said. "But by the end I was spending more time in planning meetings. I wanted to get back to hands-on winemaking.I've always loved the art and the challenge of how do you take these grapes and hopefully sculpt something that people love."
He's sculpting wines under his personal label, Aiken Wines, under which he has just released a Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon ($75), Rutherford cabernet sauvignon ($125) and Sonoma Mountain pinot noir ($55), all tiny production from meticulously farmed vineyards Aiken has known for years.
These newly released wines will make lovely gifts for the cab lovers on your holiday list, as well as, with a little decanting, lovely layered wines to pair with meaty dishes throughout winter.
Aiken is also a partner and the winemaker for Amici Cellars, a Napa cab-focused project that has been around for 20 years. The other partners include John Harris, Bob and Celia Shepard and Bart Woytowicz, all longtime friends who originally set out to simply make wines they wanted to drink.
"Amici was perfect for me," Aiken added. "They wanted to take the next step to get more attention, grow and really create something higher end, focusing on cabernet."
At Amici, Aiken makes a Napa Valley cab ($40), Spring Mountain District cab ($95) and Morisoli Rutherford cab ($125), the 2009 vintages all current and the first he's created from grape to glass.
The friends also make a less expensive, more widely distributed chardonnay ($15) and cabernet ($20) under the name Olema, from Sonoma County fruit.
Though working on a much smaller scale, Aiken employs a lot of techniques developed during his BV days, including the use of warm fermentation, a method he developed in 2006 to add complexity and layers to powerful cabernets.
Wines that would otherwise be monstrously tannic and lean and need years to come around he ferments in barrels that are then stored on racks that have wheels on them. So instead of vigorously having to punch down the wine or pump it over, Aiken can spin the barrels a couple times a day in a room that's kept warm at 80 degrees.