Profiles in Wine: Biology major changes course, he’s now Kivelstadt Cellars winemaker
Winemaking wasn’t in Luke Nio’s plan.
Majoring in biology at UC Davis, he was casually considering a career in forensics — then he took an Introduction to Winemaking course.
What he learned from Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, who taught the class, inspired the Petaluma native to pursue a brand new career path.
“Initially I thought a job in forensics would be interesting, but then I decided I didn’t want to spend my entire life in a lab,” Nio said. “That intro class really cracked the door open for me to consider winemaking. After I took some classes in viticulture and enology, the door was kicked off the hinges.”
Earlier this month, Nio was named winemaker at Sonoma’s Kivelstadt Cellars, where less-common varietals and low-intervention wines rule the roost. But his passion project remains Filomena Wine Company, a small wine brand named after his grandmother and great-grandmother.
Launched in 2014, Filomena came to fruition through a generous gift from Morgan Twain-Peterson and Chris Cottrell, partners at Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma, where Nio served as cellar master for seven years.
“One day, I was on the forklift moving barrels at Bedrock when Morgan and Chris walked up to me,” Nio recalled. “They listed five vineyards with corresponding grape varieties and asked which one I thought was the coolest and excited me most. I had no idea what they were talking about — but I chose Bedrock Vineyards petite sirah. They offered me a ton of fruit to make a wine however I wanted. That was Filomena’s first vintage.”
Next year, Nio plans to release the Bedrock petite sirah in honor of the wine brand’s 10-year-anniversary.
Like Kivelstadt, Filomena also focuses on less common grape varieties and non-dogmatic, low-intervention winemaking to create what Nio calls “clean, age-worthy wines.”
In addition to varietals such as cabernet pfeffer, vermentino and st. laurent, Nio also produces a syrah from Griffin’s Lair Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap — a vineyard that first captivated him in 2012.
“I was doing a harvest at Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen and that was the first time I tasted fruit from Griffin’s Lair VIneyard,” he said. “It was a big ‘Whoa!,’ moment for me. I had no idea domestic syrah or pinot noir could taste like that. I decided if I ever made wine for myself, Griffin’s Lair would be a vineyard I would reach out to. Lo and behold, years down the road, the opportunity presented itself for Filomena.”
For now, Filomena remains a side project he owns and manages with his wife, Kat Nio, who oversees the day-to-day business aspects of the brand. Currently, they produce about 400 to 500 cases per year, which is sold primarily online and to wine club members.
Nio acknowledges owning a small wine brand is expensive and time consuming, but he appreciates the creative outlet.
“That eagerness to keep experimenting and try new things plays a huge role in maintaining Fillomena and keeping it going,” he said. “When someone tries my wine and their eyes light up and they say, ‘This is delicious,’ – it makes me feel good to know something I made with my hands is being enjoyed by so many people.”
One of those people is Sam Baron, Kivelstadt’s former winemaker and Nio’s former classmate at UC Davis.
Two months ago, Baron was offered a director of winemaking position at Ashes and Diamonds winery in Napa and he wanted Nio to take the reins at Kivelstadt.
“Sam had tried my Filomena wines and knew my winemaking style and philosophy was very similar to his,” said Nio. “We both use minimal intervention techniques, but don’t call our wines ‘natural.’ If a wine needs something, we’re going to weigh all our options while ensuring the grapes speak through the wine. Sam thought the transition would be very easy for both me and Kivelstadt.”
A few weeks into his new position at Kivelstadt, Nio said he enjoys the mobile, dynamic part of the job — visiting vineyards, meeting growers, moving from place to place — and making new styles of wine, like skin-fermented whites.
“Right now, I’m just trying to act like a sponge and absorb all the knowledge I can,” he said. “I think what Sam and (owner) Jordan Kivelstadt have started to build here is only going to go up. I’m just really stoked to be here.”
You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @whiskymuse.