Serious Grape: What's a Family Winemaker?

On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape.


Joshua Klapper, the founder and winemaker of Timeless Palates Wine, and part of the Family Winemakers of California.

This Tuesday, I spent some time with the Family Winemakers of California.

What's a Family Winemaker, you might ask?

Good question. In California, a Family Winemaker is a member of a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting small, independent winemakers and preserving the diversity of California's wine production. At a time when many small businesses are going under and corporate giants dominate much of the wine culture in this county, it's nice to be reminded that there are still small producers out there.

The Family Winemakers of California have more than 740 members, and the membership is dominated by makers who produce less than 5,000 cases of wine a year. To put this in perspective, the wine biz defines a "small wine producer" as someone who produces less than 50,000 cases a year.

These producers are much smaller than that.

Who are these small producers? First and foremost, they all share an interest in carefully crafting wine from the planting of vines to the picking of the fruit and managing how the juice ferments and the wine is aged.

In addition, though, many of them have a long history of winemaking in their families, which is how the association got its name. At Ceja Vineyards, for example, winemaking has been a family affair for more than forty years, ever since Pablo Ceja and his wife Juanita immigrated to the United States and started working in wineries in northern California. Now, the family owns their own vineyards and winery and produces excellent and affordable Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other wines from Napa and Sonoma fruit.

There are father-and-son operations (like Robert and Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyards, which makes some of my favorite California wine made with Rhone varieties) and husband-and-wife teams (like Linda and Lester Schwartz of Fort Ross, who are celebrating their tenth anniversary, commemorating the year they first planted their vines on the remote Sonoma Coast).

But some members are the first in their families to try their hand at winemaking. Joshua Klapper, pictured here, is the founder and winemaker of Timeless Palates Wine. He grew up in New York and his dad's a lawyer. After training as a sommelier and working at one of Los Angeles's finest restaurants, Klapper decided to start making wine in 2005. Working in the négociant tradition, he buys the finest fruit available from a wide range of producers and then blends the juice into old world, food-friendly wines with a decidedly modern edge.

I thought his 2007 La Fenêtre À Coté Red Blend was the most exciting thing I tasted that afternoon, with its complex layers of fruit and spice, its silky texture, and its $20 price tag. And his 2006 Tête Brûlée Cabernet Sauvignon would knock the socks off any Bordeaux enthusiast—though it will set you back far more than $20. Klapper produced only 675 cases of the À Coté blend, and 85 cases of the Tête Brûlée. So if you want some of the wine, you might have to get on the mailing list or harass your local merchant.

And that's the challenge for you and me when it comes to enjoying the fruits of a Family Winemaker's labors. With such small production, you aren't likely to find their wine in the local supermarket, or even the local wine chain store. But you should sample their wine whenever you get a chance. Ask your local wine merchant to recommend a small production wine next time you go in. And remember that small wine producers are everywhere—not just in California.

If you want to support the little guy in the face of the corporate giants, and make sure that we aren't all drinking homogeneous grape juice masquerading as wine in the future, keep your eyes peeled for family winemakers and remember that in the 21st century, families come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.