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California's Next Super-Consultant

Interview with Mark Aubert, winemaker
for Peter Michael and Colgin

(May 28, 1999) Mark Aubert is an easy choice for Napa Valley's man of the moment.

     As winemaker for Peter Michael Winery, he crafted some of America's most acclaimed Chardonnays for nearly a decade. Then this spring, he scored a smash with Cabernet Sauvignon. Sure, the 1994 Peter Michael "Les Pavots" was terrific -- but the 1996 and 1997 are off the charts. They're among the top wines I tasted this spring, of any variety, from anywhere.

pmlabel.jpg (6711 bytes)
1996 PETER MICHAEL "LES PAVOTS" has just been released and it's well worth the search.

     If that weren't enough, Mark recently announced that he'll be leaving Peter Michael and taking over the winemaking for Napa Valley's ultra-cult-Cab Colgin. He replaces Helen Turley, who quit Colgin at the beginning of April.

     But Colgin is just one of several new projects. Clearly, he's of a mind to become Napa Valley's next super-consultant and his timing looks pretty good. Reigning stars Turley and Tony Soter both seem to be throttling back, in order to concentrate more on their own labels.

     On May 10 and 21st, Mark and I talked about all the above and how he got there.

     You may want to read this interview in several sittings, so I've broken it up into bite-sized sections. You can read it all the way through or hop to the parts that catch your interest.

     Click on any heading below to jump to that section:

1. What's in store at Colgin?

2. Coming soon...the next cult red?

3. The next great region for California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

4. Teen life in 1970s Napa Valley: "We didn't drink beer, we drank Champagne!"

5. Plotting a wine revolution at the "University of All Seasons"

6. How to make a great unfiltered Chardonnay: "Basically, you do nothing. But..."

7. The new vineyards at Peter Michael

8. The story behind the new Les Pavots Cabs

9. Report on the 1998 vintage

10. Clone vs. terroir. What's more important?

11. POSTSCRIPT: August 2001 Mark Aubert Update

Part 1. What's happening at Colgin?

APJ: First of all, congratulations on your Colgin appointment. When do you start work?

MA: I've already started. Helen left April 1 and we bottled the 1997 Colgin mid-April. I supervised the bottling for that. No filtration. It was done in about a day.

APJ: So this will be the second time you've succeeded Helen Turley as winemaker.

MA: Everyone's saying that! But yes, she was the winemaker at Peter Michael before me. She hired me.

APJ: How did the Colgin job come about?

MA: Ann Colgin and I have been talking on and off for some time now. Since last summer. Then Helen left on the first of April and things moved fast. I had to hit the ground running.

APJ: Will there be any changes of direction?

MA: I’ll try to bring the ripeness up just a little bit more. One of Ann Colgin’s complaints to me was that she thought Bryant [another Napa Valley cult Cab] was getting more attention from Helen.

     So we’re going to pump up the ripeness, maybe a few tenths higher. Maybe get to a potential alcohol of 14.5%, as a mind-set.

     It will depend on vintage conditions. But 14.5% is achievable. The Herb Lamb vineyard is a bit older, so the fruit matures at a slower rate. It shouldn’t be a problem.

APJ: Please tell me 1997 is a big vintage for Colgin!

MA: Well, we bottled, what -- 420 cases? Not bad. The size will get better, don’t worry!

APJ: ‘95 was tiny.

MA: 1995 was minuscule. ‘96 was no big deal. Quantities in ‘98 are going to be really bad. There’s about half as much. But then Tychson Hill will be coming on line.

APJ: Tychson. That's Colgin's new estate vineyard, right?

MA: Yes, and I'm really excited by it. Tychson Hill will be Colgin's first estate wine and the site is just beautiful for Cabernet. It's a real rock pile and the vines are spaced really tight. Meter by 6 feet.

APJ: And David Abreu planted it?

MA: Yes, he's the vineyard manager. Part of the team. David will deliver the fruit and I’ll make the wine.

APJ: Nice team!

MA: And with Ann Colgin doing the marketing, it’s a powerhouse. A lot of fun with this group! She’s the most warm and courteous person in this business.

APJ: Tell me again where Tychson Hill vineyard is?

MA: Tychson is off Highway 29, about two blocks up from the Grace Family Vineyard 29 Rockland. Kind of across the street from Freemark Abbey winery.

APJ: On the mountain side of the road.

MA: Yes, and the soil is great there. It's a volcanic composite called Aiken.

APJ: Where is Herb Lamb?

MA: It’s over East on the other side of the valley. The base of Howell Mountain, off Deer Park road. I would guess the elevation is about 800-1,000 feet with a northeast exposure.

APJ; Do you anticipate different vinification problems with each site? I mean, would the Herb Lamb fruit be intrinsically a little more tannic?

"Herb Lamb is planted on AXR rootstock...the phylloxera will get in there eventually..."

MA: Well, one problem is that Herb Lamb is planted on AXR rootstock, which will have to be addressed eventually -- the phylloxera will get in there eventually.

     I would guess that the Tychson is going to be a little softer. Because of the tighter vine-spacing. So there will be a smaller crop load per vine, which lets us fine-tune more easily.

APJ: What are Ann’s eventual goals for production levels?

MA: Tychson Hill is small. It’s going to produce about 500 cases. And the Herb Lamb is 500.

     But there will be another vineyard too. I can’t give you particulars about it until next year, but I assure you it’s a great location.

Part 2. Coming soon...the next cult red?

APJ: I also hear you’ve got another new winemaking venture.

MA: Yes. It’s a new Cab called Sloan. The owner is a Seattle businessman named Stuart Sloan who has a residence here in Napa Valley. He has a 15 acre vineyard up above Auberge de Soleil in Rutherford. It’s on Auberge road up in the high bench in the eastern hills.

     Stuart wants to come in and do it right from the get-go. David Abreu planted the vineyard. It’s spaced meter by 6 feet.

     He hired me as his winemaker. I was very intrigued by the property. I really believe in these single-vineyard appellations and I saw this as an opportunity.

APJ: So what is the Sloan vineyard planted to?

MA: The four Bordeaux varieties -- Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. We’re going to do them like nobody else has done. With emphasis on the vineyard and incredibly low yields. The vineyard is basically sitting on a bunch of rocks. Stuart wants the small yields and he's planted the right way to achieve them.

     We anticipate 750-1,000 cases. Our first harvest will be the year 2,000. And it’s an incredibly exciting project because I think this is one of those places that will be admired much like Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Araujo, Harlan...

     We’ll be using the long macerations like Harlan does. And with David on board managing the vineyard, we’re going to have an amazing repertoire of fruit to work from.

     The house is beautiful. A true Chateau, with the winery underneath. I think we’ll be producing some very substantial and influential wines.

     [UPDATE: Mark saw Sloan through the 2000 vintage and has since gone on to other projects. See our August 2001 Mark Aubert Update]

Part 3. California's greatest region
for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?

APJ: But that's not all you have going. You're going to have your own label, yes?

MA: Right, Aubert Wines.

APJ: I hear you’ll be making your own Pinot Noir....

CONTINUED on next page. Click here to go to there...

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