Jamey Whetstone, owner of the eponymous Napa winery, flew in to New York recently–and paid a visit to the Markets Media office on a fine spring afternoon. We talked wines, family and French chateaus with the down-to-earth winemaker.
Starting out at Napa Valley’s Turley wine cellars in 1998, Whetstone had just left the restaurant business in search of a new adventure.
“I was a tractor driver,” Jamey chuckled. “I learned the blue collar side of the business, the farming, and eventually, I took interest in winemaking.”
A summer spent in France with the Seysses family, owners of Domaine Dujac in Morey St. Denis, cemented Whetstone’s newfound love for wine–and the labor behind it.
“It was such a great experience. [The Seysses family] wasn’t any different from us folks in California. They were just as concerned with what they’d be eating for dinner. It was an amazing opportunity to see a family–a top winemaker–that’s really just about virtue–their farming, their values, their belief in making wines. They’re just an old school French family,” he recalls.
Returning to California after that summer, Whetstone immediately went to work on establishing his own brand. With Larry Turley’s help–Jamey was his right-hand man–he learned to make his first two wines.
“It’s better to be lucky than it is to be good,” Whetstone humbly says. “Larry let me use his equipment, his facilities, his trucks. It probably saved me about 40 cents on the dollar overall. It probably put him off that I was doing it–I was essentially saying, ‘I’ll work here, use all of your stuff, and then I’m leaving!” Turley’s generosity didn’t stop there:
Eventually, the fledgling brand grew enough for Whetstone and his wife–and very astute business partner–Michelle, to establish the winery’s home in a 19th-century French chateau. Designed in the late 1800s by a former Scottish sea captain named Hamden McIntyre, the chateau is one of many Napa Valley landmarks designed by McIntyre; indeed, three well-recognized wineries now call his gravity-flow works their home (Trefethen, Beaulieu, and Rubicon).
For the Whetstones, the chateau serves as not only their winery’s headquarters, but also as a physical expression of their commitment to making good wines.
“My wife, Michelle, is amazing. She takes care of our marketing, our sales, our brand–and she’s very good at it,” Whetstone said. On their website, Jamey attributes the winery’s more personal touch to his wife (and perhaps their four children):
“The most significant change in the trajectory of Whetstone has been the full time addition of my wife Michelle. Her idea of sales was simple: we should be more in touch with the lost art of face to face conversation than our smart phones. She also discovered the property we now call home to Whetstone. She runs the Tasting Room, Wine Club, Mailer, Event Planning, staff and just about everything else this side of winemaking, vineyard management, and national sales.”
The more personal touch seems to have done wonders. Rather than concentrating solely on the traditional tasting room approach (upon which most wineries rely), the Whetstones have added a more experiential component to their wines: food and atmosphere. Often, they’ll work closely with local chefs and restaurateurs to host events–sometimes at the chateau, sometimes on a vineyard–allowing visitors to discover Whetstones’ wines in a very relatable context: during a meal.
During his visit to Markets Media, Whetstone gregariously popped open two of his wines: a 2008 Pinot Noir and a 2010 Chardonnay Carneros El Pajaro. Both wines were full of character, displaying traits typical to their type while showing a bit of Whetstone-infused personality. And because only a winemaker can truly know his own creation, Whetstone’s tasting notes are as follows:
“2008 Pinot Noir: 100% French Oak, 40% new wood. Punch downs only. Unfined, unfiltered. Lighter shade of ruby in color. Big, floral nose of rose petal, dark red fruits, sassafras tea, and soy. Secondary notes of pencil shavings, vanilla, and a touch of bacon fat. Full-bodied, rich flavors of baked berry pie, pomegranate, and baker’s chocolate. Finishes super long with flavors of ripe cranberry and bacon fat. 14.5% alcohol.
2010 Chardonnay Carneros El Pajaro: All French Oak, 20% new wood. Unfined, unfiltered. Nose full of hazelnuts, caramel, lychee, popcorn, and lime with faint hints of vanilla and gardenia. The palate is lean with focused flavors of green apple, pear, Meyer lemon and pineapple; Mouthwatering acidity and a citrus-laden finish. 14.4% alcohol.”
While the winery has about an acre of land for grapes, the Whetstones also source from nearby vineyards throughout California’s Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Napa Valley. Almost all are either organically or sustainably farmed, making for a wine experience that is as natural and personal as the Whetstones themselves.
Whetstone Wine Cellars is located on 1075 Atlas Peak Road in Napa, California. For additional information or to book a tasting (required 24 hours in advance), please visit www.whetstonewinecellars.com