There are a few truly exceptional winemakers who are shaping the world of wine through innovation and style. In addition to their own wine, they often take on additional consulting projects and mentor fledgling winemakers. Some of the most famous winemakers have their stakes in dozens of projects all over the world, garnering them the title Flying Winemaker.
The following winemakers are the puppet masters of the California wine industry and have inspired much of the wine we drink today. Their influence is apparent in the wake of new wineries and would-be winemakers who mimic their style and methods.
The Most Expensive Wine in America
Heidi Peterson Barrett
In 1992 Robert Parker awarded Screaming Eagle a one-hundred point score making winemaker Heidi Barrett an overnight sensation. Then in 2000, a 6-liter bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle sold for $500,000, the most expensive California wine ever sold. Today Screaming Eagle continues its reign demanding the highest retail of any other California wine thanks to Heidi Barrett’s efforts. Now a world famous wine consultant, Heidi has launched La Sirena, a wine of similar quality to that of Screaming Eagle. Even at around $150 a bottle, La Sirena wine is considered substantially more affordable.Heidi Peterson Barrett has worked with these wineries: Dalla Valle Vineyards, Paradigm Winery, Grace Family Vineyards, Amuse Bouche, Lamborn Family Vineyards, Showket Vineyards, Fantesca, Diamond Creek Vineyards and Niebaum-Coppola.
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Escape From California
Paul Hobbs started his wine career at Mondavi in 1977. Paul Hobbs focus on oak aging techniques led him to make great wines with Mondavi and Simi Winery. In 1991 he struck out on his own, developing the Paul Hobbs brand began consulting for other wineries. Paul Hobbs realized the potential for Malbec after his success with the varietal at Bodegas Catena in Mendoza, Argentina. Today he continues to make fantastic Malbec and Cabernet through his partnership at Viña Cobos, Mendoza and other Argentinian brands.
Affordable Introductory Wine: Crossbarn
Paul Hobbs worked with Simi Winery, Peter Michael, Fisher Vineyards, Lewis Cellars, Bodegas Catena, Pulenta, La Flor, Riglos, Château de Mercuès and Finca 8.
Putting Zinfandel Back on The Map
Helen Turley was already known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in Napa when her brother asked her to produce Old Vine Zinfandel at Turley Winery. At Turley she found success in her signature winemaking style of using ripe old vine zinfandel grapes and natural yeasts. Eventually Helen started her own label, Marcassin, which produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They are rich wines that see extended barrel aging. Some have noted they’re as good as drinking gold and just about as expensive.
Affordable Introductory Wine: Turley Wine Cellars, BR Cohn
If You Have $500 Lying Around
Bob Levy started his career as a winemaker at Rombauer in the early 1980s and then devoted 15 years as winemaker at Merryvale. During his tenure at Merryvale, Levy partnered with Real Estate Developer Bill Harlan to create a ‘first growth’ Napa red wine. The wine, Harlan Estate, commands prices close to $700. Bob Levy is responsible for Harlan Estate and the two other Harlan brands: Bond and The Maiden. Since his success with Harlan, Bob Levy started a personal brand, Levy & McClellan, with his wife, winemaker Martha McClellan.
French Winemaker Lost In Napa
Philippe Melka cut his teeth at Chateau Haut-Brion, Badia O Coltibuono (Italy), Chateau Petrus (France) and Chittering Estate (Western Australia). Realizing the potential of Napa he dedicated his life’s work to consulting and eventually starting Melka Wines with his wife Cherie.
Affordable Introductory Wine: Cliff Lede
Known for Melka Wines, Gemstone, Dominus Estate, Cliff Lede, Hundred Acre, Vineyard 29, Seavey Vineyard, Parallel, Moone-Tsai, Dana Estates, Lail Vineyards.
Inky Stuff with Weird Grapes
Robert Foley became a famous winemaker after his stint at Pride Mountain Vineyards. Foley has a clear passion for alternative grapes such as Charbono and Petite Sirah and makes incredibly rich red blends under his personal brand, Robert Foley Vineyards.
Affordable Introductory Wine: Griffin by Robert Foley
Bob Foley is known for Switchback Ridge, Hourglass, Paloma, School House, and Engel Family wines and his own label Robert Foley located on Howell Mountain
In 1982, Tony Soter founded Etude Wines specializing in Pinot Noir. After a lifetime of California wine consulting with partner Mia Klein (see below), Tony Soter decided to leave California for good. He currently spends all his efforts on his Oregon wine label, Soter Vineyards.
Affordable Introductory Wine: Soter Vineyards
Tony Soter has worked with such famous wineries as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Stonegate, Spring Mountain, Chappellet, Sequoia Grove, Robert Pepi, Araujo, Niebaum-Coppola, Shafer, Spottswoode, Viader and Dalle Valle.
Redefining Pinot Noir
Kris Curran put Pinot Noir back in the limelight with her most famous wine Sea Smoke, which was featured in the movie Sideways. She currently lives in Santa Ynez, an area that’s expanding in popularity.
Kris Curran has consulted at Koehler Winery, Seasmoke Cellars, Foley Wines, Cambria Winery, Badge and D’Alfonso-Curran Wines, with husband Bruno D’Alfonso,
Other Winemakers to Geek Over
- Merry Edwards Mount Eden Vineyards, Matanzas Creek Winery, Merry Edwards Vineyards
- Mia Klein Araujo Estate, Spottswoode and Viader, as well as the full-time winemaker at the vaunted Dalla Valle and the proprietor of Selene
- Mark Herold Hestan, Kamen, Harris, Buccella, Kobalt, Celani Family Vineyards, Maze and The Vineyardist
- Thomas Rivers Brown Outpost, Turley Winery, Schrader, Maybach, Aston Estate, Vieux-Os, Double Diamond