Devil Proof winemaker Jesse Katz turning heads

The brand Devil Proof has a captivating photograph on its label - a Cuban woman, wildly content, as she smokes a cigar.

Jesse Katz knew that image was perfect for his edgy malbec because it captures the Cuban adage, “Live well, drink well and the devil can't get ya! You're devil proof.”

Katz, 33, continues to turn heads with his malbec, and a tweet set it in motion.

Robert Parker Jr. of The Wine Advocate, arguably the most powerful wine critic in the world, tasted a barrel sample of his 2012 vintage and tweeted “This may be the finest malbec I've ever had in California, and it rivals the best in the world.”

Within 24 hours there was a clamor for the wine, with Devil Proof attracting a cult following. The prized picture on the label was shot by Katz' dad - Andy Katz - the famous photographer who has had a monumental influence on his son's life, image by image.

By the time Katz graduated high school, he had traveled to more than 60 countries, traipsing through cities, towns and villages with his dad, who framed their exploits. Today Katz, who lives in Healdsburg, is nearly as famous as his father in wine circles. Katz made the 2014 list of Forbes magazine's “30 under 30;” he was included in a pool of 30 game changers in the food and drink category, the first winemaker to make the cut.

Forbes was impressed with Katz's business prowess with his work on several brands, most notably Roth Estate Winery in Healdsburg. “I was able to grow the Roth brand over 800 percent in five years while also getting the highest rated wines during the scale up,” Katz said. “We had to show (Forbes) financials …”

Of course, this game changer had already made an impression in some Hollywood circles. When Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake decided to tie the knot in 2012, Biel, who knew Katz from childhood, asked him to craft the wine for their wedding. The bottling was called “Blue Ocean Floor,” the same name as a song Timberlake wrote about Biel on his album, “The 20/20 Experience.”

“Katz is one of our favorite winemakers,” Timberlake said. “His wine has been a part of our cellar and enjoyed on countless occasions.”

World citizen

Katz was born in Boulder, Colorado, and he said he'll never forget that embarrassing moment when he realized, at 5 years old, his life was vastly different than his classmates. It was 1989 and his teacher asked what's your favorite food? Pizza and pasta were the norm, until he surprised everyone with sushi.

“Half the kids were disgusted and half of the kids didn't know what it was,” Katz said, with a laugh. “I was teased about it for a week.”

The precocious traveler went to Japan four times before he was 5 years old. “My mom (Kathy Mackin) would make sure I was up-to-date with my school work and often we'd be ahead,” Katz said.

Of course later in life Katz would realize his nomadic lifestyle was anything but embarrassing. When he was 31 he realized just how lucky he was to parachute into different countries on the heels of his father. The winemaker said he convinced his father to do a book on the First Growths of Bordeaux, so he could work at the top chateaux. The book, now on the market, is titled “The Club of Nine,” and offers a glimpse into these top estates: Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Yquem, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, and Ausone.

“Jesse with his love for Bordeaux varietals had always wanted to work in the motherland,” Andy said. “As true to the nature of my son, he only wanted to see how it was done from the best of the best.”

The club of nine apparently made the younger Katz a member.

“I had this dream job,” Katz said. “I got to go everywhere.”

The wine lover had found his niche in Bordeaux varietals while working at esteemed California wineries like Screaming Eagle.

“When I was 24 I sent a letter to 20 wineries, and Screaming Eagle in Napa Valley was the first to call me.” He was hired as assistant winemaker in 2009.

To this day Katz teases his wife, Sarah, for being unaware during bocce ball and baseball barbecues at Screaming Eagle. It didn't register to the woman studying to be an epidemiologist that the winery produces one of the most sought-after cult cabs in America.

“She had no idea where she was,” Katz said. “Almost every wine collector would love to be at Screaming Eagle playing bocce ball, and she was one who couldn't care less.”

Today Katz works on several brands including Aperture, a project with his father, as well as crafting wines for local charities such as Becoming Independent.

Back when Katz was a teenager, he never even considered the possibility of being a winemaker. He had seen the French model of winemaking, the lineage of wine and how it was passed down from generation to generation. But that perception changed when he took a job at Fess Parker in Santa Barbara one summer during college. When he was hired as a cellar rat and soon promoted to lab assistant, he began to see a world of possibility open up. It inspired him to change his major and pursue winemaking. He earned a bachelor's degree in enology, with a minor in chemistry, at Fresno State, graduating in 2007.

“I realized I had an opportunity to have this dream to be a winemaker, even though it's not in my bloodline and I would be the first winemaker in my family.”

The Malbec intrigue

Katz became fascinated with malbec during two internships in Argentina, one with Bodega Noemia in Patagonia in 2008, and the other with Sebastopol winemaker Paul Hobbs in Mendoza in 2009.

“I had fallen in love with malbec, and when I returned, I couldn't find any great ones that rivaled the great wines of California,” Katz explained. “In 2010 I realized Alexander Valley and Sonoma County had certain sites for malbec, and I started searching for them.”

It was a treasure hunt of sorts.

“One of the reasons I love being in Sonoma County, and there are so many reasons, is that it's one of the greatest places on the planet,” Katz said. “Professionally, as a winemaker, there's no other region or place I know that has this kind of diversity.”

The winemaker said that in Sonoma County, there are climate pockets that are colder than Champagne, France, some regions that are well-suited for Bordeaux varietals and everything in-between.

“There also are so many different soil types and pockets of areas we're still just figuring out,” Katz said.

Before long, Katz found the plot of land perfect to groom his malbec, a 3-acre block in the hillsides of Farrow Ranch of northern Sonoma County. He took over that portion of the vineyard, then he changed the trellising and dry farmed it instead of irrigating it.

Once Katz found his chosen spot, he moved forward to produce the first vintage of Devil Proof in 2012. Countless people warned him to pursue cabernet sauvignon rather than the lesser-known malbec, but Katz wasn't swayed. He trusted himself, and he often reminds himself that's how you stay on track - by trusting your instincts.

“With our malbec we wanted to push the limits,” the winemaker said. “One that showcases incredible power but still has elegance and incredible silky tannins, and that's how Devil Proof was created.”

Wine Writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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