Maybe it was because he was having dinner at Olivier LeFlaive’s house, or maybe it was because he was introduced to spectacular Pinots during that visit to Burgundy, France. But Jesse Katz was only 14 when he visited his dad, famed photographer Andy Katz, in their Burgundy family home, and this was the year that he told his father “this wine thing is amazing.”
“My father and Olivier became very close friends and we went to his house often,” said Katz, founder and winemaker of Aperture Cellars and Devil Proof Vineyards. “But he also had two stunning daughters who were right around my age. It was Bastille Day and I went off for two days knowing I’d get grounded, but it was so worth it!,” he chuckles.
Admittedly, that trip proved to be an early “aha” moment for Jesse, who began to understand and appreciate the culture of wine. What he didn’t know is that he’d become the youngest head winemaker in the U.S. just 10 years later at age 24 for Lancaster Estate in Alexander Valley, California.
During his five-year tenure at Lancaster, he orchestrated the building of the new Roth winery on Chalk Hill Road and grew the Roth line more than 800 percent. At age 29, he was named one of Forbes’30 under 30. And in 2018 his 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend, The Setting, auctioned for $350,000 at Carnivale du Vin, Emeril Lagasse’s annual charity wine auction.
Being an only child who grew up in Colorado, Jesse had the opportunity to travel the world, visiting about 80 countries with his dad by the time he was a young adult. The first wine trip was to Napa and Sonoma, where Andy was writing a book with Robert Mondavi. Logging so many miles and experiences at wine regions around the globe offered Katz a gift of perspective that he brings to his everyday life as a winemaker.
Fresh-faced Katz may be young at 35 but he has packed in 18 harvests over his career, working both hemispheres on select years.
“After I worked harvest in Napa, I went to Argentina to work harvest there and I did this three years in a row.” His experience spans harvests at wineries such as Pétrus in Pomerol and includes time on the winemaking teams at Screaming Eagle Winery, Robert Foley Winery, Viña Cobos and Bodega Noemia in Argentina.
“Then in 2013 I began to think that there was a possibility that I could go off on my own someday,” Katz said.
Today, Katz creates terroir-driven wines for his brands in Sonoma: Aperture Cellars, Devil Proof Vineyards and The Setting. Appropriately named, Aperture is a collaborative project with his father and focuses on Bordeaux varieties, demonstrating an expression of art both inside the bottle and outside.
“Like my father’s ability to tell amazing stories through his photography, my greatest joy is bringing together and interweaving the intricacies of space, place and time — in essence, the terroir — that make a stellar bottle of wine,” Katz said.
Aperture’s new winery and vineyards are slated to open this year in Alexander Valley, with the hospitality center opening in 2020.
The Setting is a partnership of three friends inspired by the power of wine and the settings in which they are enjoyed.
Katz’s flagship wine, Devil Proof Vineyards, produces a single-vineyard, dry-farmed 100% Malbec, whose first release received the highest rating of any Malbec from California from both Robert Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator, and was named “Cult Winery of the Year.”
Katz fell in love with Bordeaux varieties during his travels to Bordeaux and through his viticultural education at Fresno State University and today concentrates delivering the best expression of those grapes grown on Sonoma soil.
“I try to look at all the best things that we have to work with in Sonoma which can be different with what Bordeaux has to work with and create a wine that represents that vintage and that site the best I can,” Katz said. “Because if your goal is try to make a wine that is like a different region, then you’re in the wrong region.”
Katz stays grounded despite the success he has achieved in such a short time. He puts his abilities to work raising funds for good causes, such as Becoming Independent, the Navy Seals Foundation, United Way and Roots of Peace, whose “Mines to Vines” program works to restore economic stability to war-stricken areas of the world through agriculture.
While he continues to learn and pursue Sonoma’s untapped areas for Cabernet Sauvignon, he stresses that his best life lesson came from his father.
“He really taught me at an early age about the importance of doing something I’m passionate about, not about what was going to make the most money,” Katz said. “That was crucial because it [wine] is such a part of my life today.”