For Jill and Steve Matthiasson, the road to Napa was long and winding. Steve was born in Winnipeg, Canada and lived there for the first few years of his life before moving to Tucson, Arizona. It wasn't until college that he found his way to California, studying philosophy in LA before embarking on a horticultural degree at UC Davis. Much of Steve’s family were highly educated farmers from North Dakota, so he had always approached the idea of farming as an intellectual pursuit and was drawn to the idea of sustainability. It was this that brought him into contact with Jill, who had found her way to Davis via an upbringing in Pittsburgh and worked with him while Steve was an intern on a sustainable farming project she was managing.
While Jill’s career blossomed and she continued to co-ordinate organic farming projects in California, Steve looked specifically towards grape growing. His involvement in a number of high profile sustainability projects introduced him to many of the region’s more conscientious wine estates and when they moved to Napa in 2002 his career took off. He is now widely regarded as California’s foremost viticultural consultant, helping the likes of Stag’s Leap Wine cellars, Araujo, Spottswoode and Saintsbury to farm sustainably and get the most out of their vineyards. His work centres around organic farming, biodiversity, maximising ripeness while keeping a reign on sugar levels and he has spent years preaching an alternative gospel on the subject of yields (which is to say that microscopic yields aren't all they’re cracked up to be).
As Steve’s day job became increasingly lucrative, it allowed him and Jill to purchase their plot of land on the southern tip of the valley. Steve is a firm believer in making wine from the bottom-up rather than the top-down – being what the French would call a vigneron rather than simply a wine-maker. By having an intimate day-to-day connection with the vines it is possible to ‘make the wine in the vineyard’, avoiding the compulsion to intervene too heavily once the fruit reaches the winery. In addition to their original five acres of home vineyard, Steve farms the adjacent ‘Linda Vista’ plot of Chardonnay and nearby ‘Ryans’ vineyard of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Further afield, he looks after the ‘Dead Fred’ Cabernet vineyard in Coombsville, some ‘Red Hen’ Merlot and ‘Meadowbrook’ Cabernet in Dry Creek and another 2.5 acre parcel in Rutherford. One of the most important parcels that Steve works is the ‘Vare’ vineyard in Dry Creek Canyon, where he harvests small amounts of Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano to make his widely acclaimed ‘Napa White’. The fruit is ‘important’ because it is the result of Steve’s relationship with George Vare – a ground breaking Californian wine merchant (who sadly passed away in 2013) who introduced Steve to the joys of Italian varietals. This prompted Steve to plant Ribolla, Tocai, Schioppettino and Refosco – not exactly the usual fare in Napa Valley.
The ‘Napa White’ blends the white Friulian varietals with Sauvignon and Sémillon, co-fermented and aged in lightly toasted French oak barrels (25% new). This incredibly drinkable but complex wine was one of the wines that first attracted people’s attention to what Steve was doing, as was his single varietal Ribolla Gialla, which is as good as anything made in the grape’s native land. The range of whites is completed by Chardonnay, the ‘Linda Vista’ bottling of which is matured in used oak barrels, imparting wonderful texture but allowing the wine to retain admirable tension and minerality. There is a deliciously quaffable Syrah rosé (more Provençal than Californian in style) and two fabulous red wines that are full of sunshine and generosity without ever hinting at over-ripeness. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Refosco are all made in miniscule quantities, but beautifully poised and elegant wines that are effortlessly drinkable. Finally, Steve’s ‘Napa Red’ is an age worthy blend, matured for 20 months in 50% new barrels and 50% neutral. The whole range of wines exude class in an understated way that is the antithesis of the modern Napa Valley.
Steve Matthiasson has become one of the most influential people in Californian wine over the past decade and Jon Bonné made him the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine-maker of the Year in 2013. His wines have an authentic voice and sense of place that has inspired a new generation of wine-makers to think about farming and wine-making in a different, more sensitive way.