My first job out of school was with Casa Madero, the oldest winery in the Americas, founded in the early sixteen hundreds in Northern Mexico. There I was assigned with the job of renovating their wine and brandy production. And thanks to the insight and generosity of the owner, José Milmo, I was able to do my first extensive tour through Germany, France and Spain. I still have a box of pocket note pads that I filled during that trip.
In the mid seventies I decided to return to California, and became the first winemaker at Domaine Chandon. In a way it was like going back to school, except that in this case it was the Moët et Chandon “university.” I did several lengthy stays in Epernay learning the intricacies of Champagne so I could bring the old and new knowledge to the Yountville operation. I was again fortunate in being able to watch masters of their art doing their work. I especially remember witnessing the blending of Dom Perignon Champagne for two consecutive years. That was a lesson of the art of blending in its most subtle form, because Champagne-base wines are of an ethereal nature—pale in color with an utmost delicacy of aromas and flavors. That experience has accompanied me in my work until today. And blending red wines after that mastery lesson has always seemed to me a much easier task than blending Champagne-base wines, since red wines are more generous and less unforgiving in their nature. However, in the restlessness that brings youth, a few years later I had moved to Sterling Vineyard to fill the position of winemaker that Rick Forman had vacated to start his own winery.
While I was at Domaine Chandon and Sterling Vineyard, the Napa Valley was nothing like it is today. Back then, Napa was a small community of winemakers and winery owners, young and old. So it was not uncommon to seat at a table and talk wine with Robert Mondavi, Louie Martini, André Tchelistcheff, Joe Heitz, and other legendary pioneers. I continued my education by watching them do their work.
In 1981, I took an important step in my career and I have never looked back. I left the “sterling” future that the Napa Valley was offering me and came to a much smaller wine region. One that was, and still is, not well understood by the industry and many winemakers: the Livermore Valley. I guess that I made that decision in order to take a challenge, and the fact is that, after all this years, it has proven to be a most rewarding one.
That year I became the winemaker of Concannon Vineyard, which had a new owner Agustin Huneeus —a fellow Chilean with whom we have kept a good friendship since then. I stayed at Concannon until the end of 1989. A few months later I was working with Phillip Wente in a new project: Murrieta’s Well. But I will leave that part of the story for another day, mostly because I feel that I should first explain why moving to the Livermore Valley was a challenge to my career as a winemaker. And that will require some special attention.