Vineyard to Glass: The Wine Experience
Have you ever wanted to ask a professional vintner what, regardless of cost, makes a good wine or what effect the winemaking process has on the overall taste? On this episode, we invite Kelly Trevethan, co-founder of AXR Napa Valley, to talk about his experience and history with wine that goes back to his Italian grandfather who was also a winemaker. Whether your current preference is red, white or rosé, Kelly encourages us to continue exploring regions and varietals as he shares his passion for wine with us.
Scott Sturgeon: Welcome to another episode of Your Life, Simplified. I’m Scott Sturgeon and today’s episode is going to be a good one. We are going to talk all things wine. We’re excited to get underway. I’m really excited to introduce our guest. Kelly Trevethan is a senior wealth advisor at Mariner Wealth Advisors. And, maybe more importantly to this conversation, one of the founders of AXR Napa Valley Winery in Napa Valley. Kelly, thank you for taking the time to come on the show.
Kelly Trevethan: My pleasure. It’s great to be here.
Scott: Absolutely. Kelly, to get things started, it might be easier, or best, for the listeners to frame the conversation. Do you mind sharing a little bit of your background and maybe even a little bit of the passion for wine that we discussed in the past?
Kelly: Sure. Well, the background as it relates to wine is growing up as a young boy here in Northern California. My grandparents who immigrated over here from Italy ended up working, my grandfather worked in several of the wineries here. And so, I always, as a child, was around winemaking. My grandfather made his own wine — a lot of Italians did that in the basement. Wouldn’t recommend drinking it, but nonetheless, he seemed to like it and he grew grapes here in the Northern California area as well. And so that was really my first exposure to it.
I didn’t get involved in terms of owning a winery until 2006, when we started a project called Alpha Omega in Rutherford, California, which is in the heart of Napa Valley. Several of us started this project together. We found an amazing, rock star winemaker that, at the time, John Hope Lugar was at Newton, which was a very high-end Napa Valley cabernet facility here. And so, when they got purchased by a Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy, we were able to steal him away and start this new brand called Alpha Omega in 2006. And that grew to a very well-respected luxury brand today. And then John and I started AXR Winery, which is our new project, about eight years ago. And that is in the heart of St. Helena. It’s a historical 8.5-acre estate that was built in 1883, one of only nine ghost wineries, which means they were making wine before prohibition, which was from 1919 – 1933. So, it’s our new baby. We’re super excited and proud to share it with people. And again, it’s a wonderful property right in the heart of St. Helena, California.
Scott: Very cool. I have to think that from your perspectives on wine production from childhood to today, I have to think the industry has changed pretty drastically since then. And I know there’s a lot of processes that go into the ways that you, at AXR, produce wine. I think, out of the gate, I’m just curious in your mind, in very simple terms, what do you think makes a good wine?
Kelly: Well, I think what makes a good wine is the people who are sharing it together. I don’t mean to sound corny, but wine with your lover, or spouse, girlfriend or best friend, or college roommate versus having the same glass of wine with your worst enemy will impact the experience. I think it has a lot to do with your surroundings, but more importantly, of course, there is a big differentiator with the quality of wine, the source of the fruit, how the terroir ‑ which is the environment, the land — whether it’s a vineyard that are up on a mountain hillside, that are receiving sun on the latter part of the day versus on the ground floor in more gravel or loam type of ground that the vines are growing out of, will impact the flavor profiles of a wine. And so, we do a lot of single vineyard cabernets at AXR from some of the most well-respected vineyard sites in Napa like the Tokalon Vineyard, which is probably what most people consider the Holy grail. It’s received the most 100-point Robert Parker scores of any vineyard in Napa Valley. I think that all those things go into the experience of wine, but it really comes down to who you’re sharing it with. And I think that can make the experience again, unbelievably positive. The wine obviously has to be good. And in Napa Valley, there’s literally close to 500 wineries, so getting good wine is not difficult to do. But, you want to find the right environment, the right setting. And of course, what ends up happening is people do find their favorites. And hopefully our winemaker has 11 100-point scores, which is that perfect score that is given by some of the wine aficionados or critics, as you call them…Robert Parker and Goloni, and there’s a whole host of them now that write publications. There’s Wine Spectator, of course. But I think the answer to that question, Scott, is that it really comes down to who you’re enjoying the wine with, and that can make it absolutely a stunning experience.
Scott: I’m very interested to hear that answer. That is now what I immediately would have gone to. I think I go to what’s the terroir? What are the production means? How big is the batch, or how good is that year based on climate or quality of the grapes, or what have you? It makes total sense. Having a glass of wine on a sunny day, in my case, on the patio with my wife is great. And the quality of the wine, I think probably really plays into that, but I think you’re exactly right. It’s a lot of who you’re with. That’s a great answer.
For listeners, to really touch on a full spectrum of if you’re just a beginner or you drink a certain subset of wine that is maybe made in larger batches, all the way to any collectors or those seeking rarer vintages or things like that. To start on that one end of the spectrum…if you’re a passive wine drinker, or you’re just getting started in looking at different kinds of wine and the wine that you like the most, do you have two or three tips or pointers that you recommend in figuring out what it is that you really prefer?
Kelly: Well, I think experience obviously is the number one way to do that. A second approach, of course, is just being able to access information. There’s plenty of wonderful information on wines now. There are apps, like The Vino, where you could literally take a picture of a wine bottle in a restaurant and it’ll tell you everything about the terroir, the wine maker, how many cases were produced, flavor profiles and tasting notes. Technology has obviously created some pretty cool ways for people to find out about wine and even buy it.
I would tell you that I’m a total wine junkie. From either reading The Wall Street Journal, Leddy Teague’s edition on the weekends, to even our local San Francisco paper where they have a food and wine section on Sundays where the food and wine critics will say you need to try these wines. It’s a South African sauvignon blanc, and it’s not necessarily expensive, but it gives you the ability to try different things and find out what you really like. And what I recommend people do is don’t get pigeonholed into just thinking that Napa Valley is the only place that you can find cabernet. Yes, you can find amazing cabernets, and some of them sell for thousands of dollars a bottle like Harland or Staglin, or some of the other famous cabs that are out there. But, you can find amazing wines as well from Italy.
We traveled before the pandemic to Italy to celebrate my wife’s birthday. We went to the Amalfi coast and I was sitting on this beautiful rock ledge where there was a restaurant, and I was having a glass of Italian pinot grigio with an eggplant Parmesan. I could have died right there and there couldn’t have been a better moment. The bottle probably cost $25, but it was probably the best glass of pinot grigio that I had in my life. And again, getting back to it was the people I was with. It was the experience I was in the middle of that made that wine taste like it was the best white wine I’d ever had in my life.
I would say to utilize all those tools. I mean, look in your local papers. I’m sure in most cities there’s a wine critic that will give you recommendations. And a lot of times they’re sommelier or they’ve got their WSET Level 2 or 3, so they can obviously give you some amazing guidance. You will find that there’s some terrific wines that are affordable.
People really should branch out and try things from Argentina, or from Italy, or from Germany. You have rieslings, you have Tokai, which comes from Hungary, which is more of a late harvest, or what they call noble rot, which is where they leave the grapes on the vine well past harvest. The rains come and a form of mold sets in, which they call noble rot. It shrinks the grapes and it spikes their sugar content. That produces these amazing dessert wines. A lot of the wineries in the Napa Valley will call it a late harvest. And it’s a semillon sauvignon blanc that they leave on the vine into the rainy season. And that’s where they develop these dessert wines. So, try everything.
There’s just so many amazing opportunities. When my wife and I were traveling into Hungary, that was our first exposure to the Tokai region, which was heavily looked at as just a gem in this particular part of the world to grow this particular fruit. If you ever get a chance to try a Tokai wine, or if you see it on a menu somewhere, please try it. It’ll absolutely knock your socks off. But I would say the best thing to do is just really look at all these tools and try things and find out what your palette is attracted to because everybody’s different.
My wife and I have totally different approaches to wine. She likes this big, “jammy” fruit forward, almost like you stuck your hand in a jar of blackberry preserves and put it in your mouth. And I like wines that are a little bit more balanced and might have a little bit more earthy notes to it because of where it was grown. It just has more complexity to it, more layers to the wine. Versus my wife who just likes an absolute big Napa fruit bomb, which there’s plenty of. There’s the Prisoner brand that came out that has become very, very popular. Whereas you could have bought that wine for $40 in the store and it’s big, beautiful. You can pour it as your everyday wine. Or Frank Family is another wine from the Napa Valley that you’ll find everywhere on every wine list, and you just know it’s going to be consistent. It’s going to be big, beautiful and “jammy”. Typically, what Napa has represented in the past. My recommendation is just look at all these sources and get a chance to try some of these wines. You can certainly do that with these apps now. The Vino, again, just makes it so easy.
Scott: What a world we live in. That’s so great. The experience piece is really interesting. It goes without saying that, obviously, the more kinds of wine you can try, and in different regions, and different experiences for each of those, the better. Let’s say I’m going through this process of trying different wines, whether they are different reds or whites, whatever the case may be. As I’m going through the process, let’s say I’m just a beginner or maybe an intermediate wine enthusiast. Do you have recommendations on the actual tasting or determining what tastes you prefer?
Kelly: Sure. I did some training, so I have my WSET 2 certification (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), which is out of the U.K. So, it’s a matter of studying AND tasting literally hundreds of wines from different parts of the world and understanding where these wines were being produced, what the temperatures look like, the terroir of that particular region, whether, again, it was in Italy, whether it was Argentina or Chile, France or California, Germany, etc. So, for me, it was learning more about those wines in an educational format, which allowed me more appreciation for wines coming from all over the world. And then of course, when you get food mixed into it, it’s a whole other situation, right? I mean, there’s wines that you can taste out of a glass by themselves where you’re like, “Yeah, it’s okay.” And then all of a sudden, somebody puts it with a dish that a chef has made for you, and you taste the same wine after a bite of that food. All of a sudden, it’s like you hear angels singing. It’s like, “Oh my goodness.” That’s just so expressive. And now I taste these flavors of butterscotch, or wheatgrass, or lavender. Whatever is meant to be expressed in that wine can be very, very different when you pair it with food. And I think something that’s really fun to do too, is to get together a group of people, find wines that you can actually get pairing recommendations on in terms of dishes and then experience that with food. And it’s quite fun. I mean, we do it quite often at the winery. We do wine dinners where we’ll bring in a famous chef from a local Napa restaurant. And ahead of time, they’ll pair the wines with the food, with the help of our wine maker. And then it’s just a culinary experience that is really a lot of fun. We try and do these wine dinners quite often. We actually do a lot of them in people’s homes, all over the country where they’ll have come to our property, fell in love with it, fell in love with the wines. And they’ll say to us, “Hey, I’ve got 20 friends of mine. We’re thinking about bringing a chef in from a local restaurant to the house and just have a group of our friends. Would you be willing to come and pour your wines?” And we’ll pair them with the food. So those happen all over the country. And they’re a lot of fun because you get to bring Napa Valley to them, whether they’re in New York or Connecticut.
Scott: Outstanding. I could certainly see the appeal. That sounds like a lot of fun. Switching gears, one of the things on the, maybe the more advanced end of the spectrum I wanted to touch on today was actual production of the wine. We had discussion, you and I beforehand, and I was fascinated on hearing the intricacies that AXR goes through to create the bottles and casts of wine that you do versus maybe methods employed by larger producers that we probably see all over the country. Would you mind touching on the different processes you employ and how that impacts the final product?
Kelly: I think that when you get into the high-end cabernets from Napa Valley, and especially when you talk about wines that can be literally in the hundreds of dollars, if not thousands of dollars per bottle, it really comes down to how that production takes place. So, for us, everything is done by hand. We don’t harvest by machines. We simply will have real people out in the vineyards taking the fruit off the vine when it’s time. Then that’ll come in. There will be a de-stemmer that shakes the berries loose. There will be individuals on a conveyor belt that’ll hand-select the berries and pull out stems, leaves or berries that aren’t ripe. And that will then go into an open barrel top.
We do things very differently at AXR. We do 100%-barrel fermented wine. So, they’re not spending time in stainless steel like they do at a lot of wineries, and certainly the larger wineries. It’s more labor intensive. It’s what we call old-world wine making techniques. The fruit, once it comes off, it’s all, again, hand sorted into a barrel. Then what we do is we put dry ice pellets into that open barrel that’s filled with the berries. And what that does is it keeps the temperature from spiking to where a natural fermentation process takes place. So why we do that is because our winemaker believes that the longer you can have the grape skins in contact with the Oak without a fermentation process actually occurring, the smoother, more velvety, more elegant mouthfeel that wine will have at an early age. Whereas if you take a lot of Napa Valley wines, you’ll open up a cab that was made in 2017 or 18 and you’ll have this massive tannin explosion and this sandpapery tastes on the back of your tongue, which is really the tannins from the fruit. And they’re not soft. They’re not elegant. They’re harsh still because that wine needs to lay down for a while. So, our wine maker revolutionized open barrel top fermentation and cold soap fermentation, which is what it’s called when you put the dry ice in. And it just creates a wine that is so approachable at an early age. And there’s a reason behind it.
We just didn’t decide that this was a good idea for no reason. What we found is that the largest wine buying population currently, which probably is no surprise to anybody, are the Millennials. You’re talking about almost 54% of the wines are being purchased by that age group. Well, that’s not a patient group of people, as you guys know. They want instant gratification. They’re on their phone all the time. There’s, again, Facebooking. They’re doing everything that they want instant gratification on. And so, we did the same approach with wine. So, we use cold soap fermentation and open barrel top fermentation to make sure those wines were approachable. So, if you ordered a 2018, you would go, “Oh my goodness, this wine tastes like it’s been laid down for 10 years.” It’s smooth, it’s elegant. The tannin structure is not harsh or dramatic. And so that’s what our approach is, and a lot of wineries are now following suit and doing the same thing, especially the high-end cabernet shops throughout Napa Valley.
From fruit going into the barrel. Dry ice going into the barrel. It stays that way for a period of a few days. What happens is the staff will do what are called punch downs. So, it’s a little device that has like a, a metal circle on the end with a long handle, and you’ll push down the fruit inside and keep it moist. And then keep adding dry ice pellets until the winemaker believes it’s time to let that dry ice completely evaporate and let the natural fermentation process happen. So, then what happens is those open barrels get moved into what’s called a hot room where there’s a gas furnace and the temperature is up 110 degrees or something like that. And now these open barrel tops have like a shower cap on top to protect against exposure or contaminants. But now the natural fermentation within the barrel stays, right? So, they continue to do punch downs. And then what ends up happening is they drain all that juice out. Put it into another barrel. Then that sits for, again, the maturation process and during that timeframe, what will happen is the staff will go in and they’ll lift up the rubber, what’s called a bung, which is obviously a plug that goes into the top or side of the barrel. And they’ll go in and do what’s called stirring of the yeast. So, they’ll have a device that goes inside that barrel and basically mixes with a little wand, all of the yeast and the settling that happens from the fruit that’s in that barrel. And so that’ll continue to happen. And then of course the winemaker will go in there, we’ll taste the wines. They will go through, at some point in time, a blending where they’ll possibly add merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc, malbec, any of the Bordeaux varietals that may go in there to finish the wine.
And again, for it to be a varietal, you have to have 75% or more of that particular fruit in that bottle. So, if there’s only 60% cabernet, it cannot be called a cabernet sauvignon. It has to be called a red wine or a table wine, or a proprietary red blend. You’ll typically see a lot of winemakers use those other varietals in their blend, but it doesn’t have to be on the bottle. So again, as long as it has 75% cab, it can only say cabernet and only has to say cabernet. But then, of course, you do see a lot of blends now. I think it’s really popular to see red blends coming out because it softens. Cabernet for the most part is known as a big, powerful varietal. And it tends to have bigger tannins. It tends to be a wine that’s a little bit more complex. I think what has happened is with the Prisoner, and with a number of other red blends that have come out that have been really popular, I think the Millennials specifically do like to see a different wine than just cabernet sauvignon. But of course, cab is king in the Napa Valley. It’s the most expensive. Its fruit can range anywhere from $5,000 a ton to the To Kalon Vineyard, which is $35,000 a ton. And they have a waiting list to buy the fruit. So, if tomorrow, we went to Andy Beckstoffer, who’s the largest owner of vineyard land in California and happens to own the To Kalon Vineyard. If we said to him “Andy, we’re not really sure that we would need your fruit anymore.” Literally there would be three seconds and he would go, “No problem. See you later. Thanks.”
There’d be a list of 50 other wineries that want their fruit and would pay that number, which could be five, six times what they’d pay for other cabernet in Napa Valley. There’s a lot of single vineyard designated wines now that you’re seeing out there that are super popular. We do six of them, meaning that it’s a 100% cab, barrel fermented, but they come from just one vineyard. And they’re vineyards that are very well-respected like To Kalon, Pritchard Hill, Denali, Sleeping Lady. We have an estate cab that we do from AXR, which is the Madrona Vineyards. So that’s a really popular trend.
But, single vineyard cabernets are going to continue to get a lot of interest. I think in general, there’s a big, big approach for us of making great wines. And it’s very much driven by what I like to say, old world wine making. So, it’s the cold soap fermentation. It’s the open barrel top fermentation. It’s all that very labor-intensive work that goes into the wines. And that’s why the wines tend to be more pricey. Our wines range from maybe $90 to $280 a bottle. Those aren’t cheap wines by any stretch of the imagination. And you need to make sure that, of course, those wines are absolutely stunning, and people are going to spend that money for them.
Scott: So, Kelly, from stem to bottle, what is the all-in time to execute on that process? Are we talking days or weeks? Is there a timeframe?
Kelly: Great question. Well, again, if you’re looking at sauvignon blanc or chardonnay, it could be a six to 12- or 18-month timeframe from start to finish before you’ve got a bottled product. When you’re looking at red wines specifically, it’s usually a 2.5 – 3.5-year timeframe from start to finish when those wines are bottled and released. I would say that, on the short end, you can do rosés and sauvignon blancs and have those available in six months from the time you pick the grapes to the time that they’re in bottle and can be enjoyed. But for red, you are typically looking at 2.5 – 3.5 years from start to finish.
Scott: This is all fascinating. The 75% number…I had no idea. I think you just pick a bottle off the shelf and assume it’s all one kind of grape, when in reality it may not be. What’s also interesting, I think, and two is to differentiate you, you briefly mentioned price points. I think that’s a good illusion back to the first comment you made, which is that AXR produces what you would categorize as exceptional wines. It may be a higher price point, whereas maybe larger companies will produce larger quantities of wine at a much lower price point. At the end of the day, the process of enjoying that wine is just as important as the process of how it’s created. So, I think they’re great points all around and certainly really interesting to hear the intricacies of that more artisanal approach, if you will, versus maybe a mass distribution format. Certainly, no right or wrong answer either way, but a very different product on both ends.
Kelly: I think people need to look at price and not really get caught up on it. I would say that I was guilty of that same thing where you go into a restaurant, and you open the wine list and you go, “Oh, well this $300 bottle wines got to be better than this $30 bottle of wine.” And that’s ridiculous. In fact, Stanford did a study where they basically were looking at prices of wine and doing an actual blind tasting. You would take a $500 bottle of To Kalon cabernet and there could have been a $40 bottle of Prisoner red blend and other wines in between. And people could be told that the Prisoner was the $500 wine and the To Kalon was the $40 one. People would just say, “Oh yeah, well, that one’s definitely better,” when they knew the price, right? But if you were to completely do a blind taste, which we’ve done a bunch of times, in fact. It’s been a fun event that we do with clients sometimes where we’ll bring in like seven, eight clients. We’ll sit down. We’ll do a complete blind tasting, just for fun. We’ll pair it with charcuterie and cheeses, just to have a great experience. And usually there’s a huge surprise in the room at the end because somebody picked the cheapest wine to be the actual favorite. I think it’s never about price. It’s really about the experience where you’re having the wine. And, again, don’t get me wrong, Napa Valley handcrafted wines…there’s definitely a difference between mass-produced wines that are being harvested by machines and people don’t even touch the process. It’s just a massive machine from the beginning to the end. There’s going to be a big difference in terms of the quality of the wine. But you’ll be surprised. What I like to tell people is if you’re in a restaurant, and they have a sommelier, ask them to come to your table. Tell them to recommend something that is probably something you would never try and just get their expertise. You would be surprised nine times out of 10, that you will find that they don’t pick the most expensive wine to recommend. They actually pick something that they chose because they had an experience when they went to Germany, or when they went to Italy, or when they went to France, and they found this small little mom and pop vineyard that made this amazing wine, and it wasn’t super expensive. And so, I always like to say to the sommelier and the restaurant, “Hey, recommend. Here’s what I’m eating. Tell me what I should order; bring it out.” And I’ve never been disappointed. That is something I’d recommend everybody do is really lean on the sommelier or the wine buyer in the restaurant and have them make recommendations, especially with what you’re going to eat. It’ll tend to be an amazing experience you won’t regret.
Scott: That’s outstanding, Kelly. This is all really great tips and recommendations. I so appreciate it. I feel like we could probably talk about this the remainder of the day. I want to just take a moment to thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us. One of the questions we tend to ask our guests when they come on is, “What is the biggest financial lesson you’ve ever learned”. I think I’m curious if I flip that on its head or make it very specific to our topic. What do you think is the biggest maybe wine lesson you’ve ever learned or the biggest takeaway you would impart to our listeners about wine in general?
Kelly: I think its wine, but it’s also the experience. I have been a big fan of Walt Disney and I’ve read every book that’s been written about him. And the whole concept, if you’ve read any of his books, he always wanted to create a themed client experience, right? Or a visitor experience or guest experience. And I’ve always gone in that same approach with creating these two wineries and specifically AXR because it is an old estate, pre-prohibition. It used to be a speakeasy. There were 10 cottages on the property at one point in time. And so, when we bring people to the property, it’s a themed experience that all of our guests have. We walk them through the history of what’s happened on this property. Of course, they’re getting glasses of wine as they’re walking through the property. And so, everything we do is part of an experience that we want people to walk away with. The wines are just in addition, right? The wines have to be good. We’re in Napa Valley. You can’t be a B player and survive in Napa Valley. You have to just make sure that everybody that comes to your property has an amazing experience. So, I keep going back to that Walt Disney analogy because he’s done it so well. I mean, a man that created something back in the 50s that today is mesmerizing children and adults still, tells you that he obviously had the magic sauce that people really, really were thriving for. And that’s what we try and do at AXR is just make sure people become ambassadors for our estate and that they come back from Napa to Kansas City and they say, “Oh my goodness, you have to go see this place. It’s unbelievable. And if you ever go to Napa, I want to introduce you to them, and you have to make this one of the stops on your tour.” And so that’s really what I would say is that is a big takeaway.
Scott: Experience is so critical and it’s so key. You’re exactly right. Whether it’s wine or, in our case, wealth management. At the end of the day, it’s that experience that really makes the difference. And Kelly, I just want to thank you again so much for taking the time to sit down with us. And again, obviously, for parting all the knowledge that you’ve acquired over so many years and with your experience. So, thank you again.
Kelly: Happy to be here and look forward to having people come out. And if they ever do a head this way, AXR Napa Valley is definitely a place where we would love to host them and take great care of them.
Scott: Definitely. Well, thank you again, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in today. As always, if you have feedback, comments, questions, we would love to hear from you. You’re welcome to reach out to us firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for tuning in.
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