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Five top Napa winemakers tell what inspired them to make wine

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When you go to a tasting at a winery it is rare to see the winemaker, the creative talent behind the scenes whose judgments—based on a blend of science, art and intuition—help bring to life the red and pink and white liquids you have come to sample. But what stirs these men and women to make wine? What inspires them to do what they hope will inspire you?

It probably will not come as a great surprise to learn that what inspires winemakers is wine. Here, then, are five leading Napa Valley winemakers and the “epiphany” moments that started them on their calling:

Elizabeth Vianna: Wine as poetry
Elizabeth Vianna: Wine as poetry Photo Courtesy of Vineyard to Vintner, used with permission

Elizabeth Vianna: Wine as poetry

Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock Winery: For her it was the taste of a 1970 Mouton Rothschild that made her think about wine in a new way. “For me that was it,” she said. “One wine, one moment. That was when I realized that wine was more than a beverage; it’s poetry, it’s art. There’s a tale behind every wine.” Chimney Rock, 5350 Silverado Trail, Napa.

John Shafer: A taste of Nathan's Cab
John Shafer: A taste of Nathan's Cab Photo Courtesy of Vineyard to Vintner, used with permission

John Shafer: A taste of Nathan's Cab

John Shafer, Shafer Vineyards: “The first grower to plant Cabernet in Stags Leap District [where Shafer’s winery is] was Nathan Fay. He was a farmer who grew Cabernet grapes on his land. We were friendly, and he invited me over to his house and we had a Cabernet that he had made. This was around 1968. I could not believe anything could taste so delicious. It blew me away.” Shafer Vineyards, 6154 Silverado Trail, Napa.

Eileen Crane: 'Wow. What's that?'
Eileen Crane: 'Wow. What's that?' Photo by Jennifer Kaiser, used with permission

Eileen Crane: 'Wow. What's that?'

Eileen Crane, Domaine Carneros: Her wine epiphany occurred in 1998, well after she had joined the industry and become a founding winemaker at the hilltop winery. “We made our very first Le Reve Blanc de Blancs in 1992. It must age six years. So in 1998 I was at an event and I picked up a glass of it and had a sip. And I said, ‘Wow. What’s that? It’s lovely.’ I thought to myself, ‘It’s happened. I’ve arrived. Everything has come together.” Domaine Carneros, 1240 Duhig Road, Napa.

Dick Steltzner: Learning from a master
Dick Steltzner: Learning from a master Photo Courtesy of Vineyard to Vintner, used with permission

Dick Steltzner: Learning from a master

Dick Steltzner, Steltzner Vineyards: “I can’t think of an iconic moment. I grew up with wine. I went duck hunting as a kid and we’d have Cabernet as a family with our duck dinner. I was maybe 15 or 16. I grew up knowing the Wente brothers and Ernest Wente Sr. was the most influential person for me. He’d open a bottle of something and describe what went into it. To get the straight scoop from someone whose life was wine, and who knew so much about it, I guess that was my iconic moment.” Steltzer Vineyards, 5 Financial Plaza, Ste. 104, Napa.

Sean Foster: VW, abalone and good wine
Sean Foster: VW, abalone and good wine Photo by Kevin Nelson

Sean Foster: VW, abalone and good wine

Sean Foster, Merryvale Vineyards: Like Steltzner, Foster did not have a single moment but rather a series of them, mostly occurring in his late teens and early twenties. “I was a biochemical engineering student at UCLA,” he recalled, “and I started brewing beer in college. It sparked an interest in fermentation science as well as cooking and wine.” With a grandfather in the Calistoga Rotary, he began taking tours in Napa Valley and getting interested in “an industry where people worked really hard but also enjoyed life.” Then there was a memorable trip along the California coast with friends, in a Volkswagen van, diving for abalone and drinking good wine, and plentiful amounts of it. Merryvale Vineyards, 1000 Main Street, St. Helena. 

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