David Nakaji has some nerve.
One early morning Nakaji was checking a vineyard when he was confronted by a man in a bathrobe with a shovel. The man wanted to know what the h#@% Nakaji was doing in his vineyard.
Nakaji is the winemaker behind our wine-of-the-week winner — the Sebastiani, 2014 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel at $36. This is a gorgeous zinfandel with high-toned raspberry fruit and a hint of cranberry. It has notes of white pepper and toast, with a great oak treatment. The zin has impressive jammy fruit, with a brambly finish.
Nakaji’s regimen of checking vineyards early in the morning leads to some amazing results – even though he occasionally risks his life for the mission.
“The vineyard owner and I got quite a laugh when we figured out who each other was,” Nakaji said. “I had only met the vineyard manager at that point.”
Nakaji said the most challenging part of making zinfandel is pinpointing the pick.
“Hitting the ripeness window just right is tough,” he said. “Zin goes quickly from too green to raisins. Because the cluster doesn’t ripen evenly, it is more art than science getting it right.”
The winemaker said choosing the perfect grapes is one thing that happened behind the scenes to make this particular zin a standout.
“We sourced the grapes for this wine from a single vineyard in Dry Creek, which is the heart of California zin country,” Nakaji explained. “The picking is timed to hit phenolic ripeness. We want the tannins to soften, but we don’t want it to get too raisiny … I am trying to make a zinfandel that is ripe, but not too ripe. I like wines that pair well with food.”
Nakaji, 53, is the epitome of the professional student. He studied at UC Santa Barbara, graduating in 1986 with a bachelor’s in chemistry. He then studied at Yale, graduating in 1992 with a PhD in chemistry. Finally he studied at UC Davis, graduating in 2003 with a degree in viticulture and enology.
“The technical side of winemaking comes easy to me,” Nakaji said. “I don’t always enjoy the showman/cult of the winemaker side.”
What makes Nakaji a good fit to be a winemaker is passion, coupled with his technical prowess.
“Wine and food are a passion for me,” Nakaji said.
“I have a technical inclination as well. To make good wine consistently, it takes both.”