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Winemaker Joel Aiken Steps Out

Retired Beaulieu exec launched a label, and consults in Napa

by Paul Franson
Joel Aiken
Joel Aiken
Napa Valley, Calif. -- Joel Aiken, one of California’s best-known winemakers, retired from Diageo as vice president of winemaking for Beaulieu Vineyard last summer after 27 vintages, but he has not retired from the wine business.

He continues to consult on his baby, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that he has made for more than 25 years. He’s also launched his own label, Aiken, is already consulting with two wine brands ( and has other prospects up his sleeve.

Last year, he made the first wines for his Aiken label, choosing Howell Mountain Cabernet and Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir. “I’m better known for Cab,” he admits, “but I also made Pinot from Carneros and spent a lot of time in Oregon and Burgundy.” He chose Sonoma for the Pinot because it was a little cooler -- and a newer frontier.

Joel Aiken is also working with Amici Cellars and Erba Mountainside Vineyards. Amici has been around a long time but never gained much notice. Aiken is trying to help modernize its styles and take the Cabernet upscale. This year, it expanded to Spring Mountain fruit and is working on other sources for 2010. It also makes Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The winery has worked with Bin to Bottle custom crush winery, but Aiken makes the Spring Mountain wines at Ron and Susan Krausz’ new Arkenstone Winery on Howell Mountain, where he and Amy make their own wines.

He’s also helping Erba, which has vineyards above 1,100 feet on the eastern slope of Atlas Peak near the Pahlmeyer property.

Aiken says he wants to help people make today’s Cabernet, respecting the terroir but not going over the top. “We try to keep everything in balance to make a wine that’s good with food.”

With BV since 1982

Aiken joined Beaulieu, called BV in Napa Valley, after receiving his masters in enology from the University of California, Davis, in 1982, and has been with the venerable winery ever since.

In the early days, he worked for legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff, who had great influence on his winemaking. More recently, he worked with peripatetic winemaking consultant Michel Rolland.

“I started out as the kid who did the grunt work, then moved up to winemaker and ended mostly in a management job where I wasn’t as involved in winemaking as I’d like,” he says. “Now I’m back to winemaking and getting into the vineyard, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly.” He was BV's vice president of winemaking from 1999 to 2009.

While at Diageo, Aiken also got involved with other wineries in addition to Beaulieu, and in recent years, he oversaw winemaking at Acacia and Provenance in Napa Valley.

Aiken directed the replanting of Beaulieu's historic vineyards with new clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in Rutherford, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones in Carneros.

He was best known for BV’s Cabernets, especially Georges de Latour Private Reserve, but he made wines from many varieties sourced from many parts of the valley.

Beaulieu's Reserve Winery

He also directed design and construction of Beaulieu's Reserve Winery to make this wine; it was completed in 2008. The Reserve Winery uses computer controlled pump-overs and temperature control, as well as the innovative technique of barrel fermenting Cabernet Sauvignon to produce Beaulieu's flagship wine.

Critic Robert Parker gave his 2007 a 95, stating, “The phenomenal 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve Georges de Latour is the greatest BV Private Reserve made since the 1970 and 1968."

Aiken also is known for his expertise with barrels, dating back to his masters thesis. “My interest began when the first cooper started making barrels in Calistoga with air-dried and toasted American oak,” he says. “Before that, the American oak barrels we got were untoasted whiskey barrels. We filled them with a soda ash solution for two days, then neutralized them and used them for two years for “Burgundy” or Cabernet before aging Georges de La Tour.”

He says that in trials, tasters couldn’t tell the difference between the French and American barrels when they were both air-dried and properly toasted.” He brought his knowledge of barrels to Beaulieu.

“In the 1930s, André used French oak barrels, but when the war started, they couldn’t get them, and used American oak. He wanted to return to the French oak, but the family liked the American oak, and it became a tradition.”

In 1989, BV started using some French oak again, and now it's 95% French, he says.

Aiken has kept up with barrels and notes the immense changes and progress in oak -- both in barrels and alternatives. “They’ve learned to tailor flavors by selecting the right temperature for toasting,” he notes.

Aiken also has seen a big change in the harvest. In his early days, when Cabernet was picked in November, it had only reached about 23º Brix. The grapes had leaf roll virus that reduced sugar production. “We had hang time but lower sugar, and the grapes were in balance.”

He jokes, “Sometimes I wish we could dial in just the right amount of virus.”

One obvious question is whether he’s working with his wife, winemaker and consultant Amy Aiken, who makes Meander wines. “No,” he says. “We’re keeping them separate. I’m concentrating on hillside Cabs and she’s focusing on the benchland.”
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