Jesse Fox was a chef at the French Laundry when wine bewitched him with the aroma of harvest, nudging him to change his allegiance.
“I’d be coming up and down the valley and I could smell harvest,” he said, alluding to fermenting grapes.
This chef-turned-winemaker is behind our wine-of-the-week winner — the Olema 2016 Sonoma County Chardonnay at $15. It’s a floral chardonnay and on the palate it has notes of citrus, pear and a hint of vanilla bean. The Olema has a lingering finish, but what makes it a standout is its balance. It’s spot on.
Fox, 38, is associate winemaker at Calistoga’s Amici Cellars and his primary responsibility is to make Olema wines. He studied at Cornell University, and graduated in 2002 with a degree in hotel and restaurant administration.
Before delving into the world of wine, Fox worked at Yountville’s French Laundry in 2004. As the Canapé Chef de Partie, he prepared foie gras, as well as oversaw and made all the VIP courses, including caviar, soups and custards.
“I have never worked so hard or so fast in my life,” Fox said. “I had to, with 12 to 20 hours a day … The skills I learned there help me every single day in winemaking and beyond. Details are everything. Maybe (chef Thomas Keller) taught me that or maybe I had it in my blood from the beginning, but he pushed you to listen to that inner voice that asks ‘is it good enough or can it be done better, more perfect?’ No one is perfect but striving to be, listening to that voice as much as possible, makes better wine.”
What’s so compelling about chardonnay, Fox said, is “its capacity to have a broad range.”
“Chardonnay is the varietal that is a benchmark in terms of complexity in white wine and can range from an easy-drinking summer wine on the porch to some of the most classic and well-regarded wines in the world,” Fox said. “When you taste a great balanced wine, it’s not about oak, alcohol or acidity, it’s just, ‘Wow that is delicious, refreshing, exactly what I needed today.’ ”
“Reaching the potential of this majestic grape, the optimum balance of weight and acidity while maintaining primary aromatics,” Fox said. “I refuse to make a boring, simple white wine no matter the price.”
Wine Writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
North Coast Wine Challenge winners
Best of the Best: Kokomo 2016 Pinot Noir Gopher Hills Block Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast
Best of Show Red: Kokomo 2016 Pinot Noir Gopher Hills Block Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast
Best of Sonoma County: Kokomo 2016 Pinot Noir Gopher Hills Block Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast
Best of Show White: J. Rickards Winery 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Croft Vineyard Alexander Valley
Best of Show Rose: Rodney Strong Vineyards 2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir Russian River Valley
Best of Show Sparkling: Domaine Carneros 2013 Brut
Best of Show Dessert Wine: Sonoma Cutrer Vineyards 2015 Late Harvest Chardonnay
Best of Lake County: Cache Creek Vineyards 2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County
Best of Marin County: DeLoach Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir Marin County
Best of Mendocino: Soda Rock 2016 Chardonnay Mendocino
Best of Napa County: Mudita 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Circle S Ranch Atlas Peak Napa
Best of Sonoma County: Kokomo 2016 Pinot Noir Gopher Hill Block Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast