We’re walking in the Rutherford Dust. It’s a region of Napa Valley, and it’s the nickname for the AVA of Rutherford. It’s known as Rutherford Dust because in the summer it is so hot and dry there. The earth dries up like a snail in the Sahara. There is even a group winemakers & vintners of this region who formed The Rutherford Dust Society. Julie Lumgair is a luxury winemaker consultant and my companion today. We’re walking in the most beautifully manicured lot of vines I’ve ever seen. The grapes are well groomed Cabernet Sauvignon, round juicy and healthy. Flawlessly shaped bunches are tugging at the vines begging for the harvest. It’s hot in The Valley, but not quite time for picking.
I met Julie at an event put on by Women for WineSense at the JCB Tasting Salon in Yountville. Taken by her verve after hearing her inspired but brief talk at the low-key event, I knew I had to learn more. She’s a 5th generation farmer from Tennessee. Today she is Luxury winemaker consultant for Napa and Sonoma Counties. She isn’t what you would call a shrinking violet. In fact, she was a powerhouse for Procter and Gamble on the executive track in the world of Brand Management. Lumgair ended up returning to her roots after and came full circle in the realm of wine, truly from farm to table.
There’s alot to be said for how you treat your yeast before you start the show.
She grew up in the family business. Farming, timber, raising cattle, and various crops. Active in 4-H Lumgair judged food products beginning in the 4th grade. Dairy products and baked goods were her specialties. The baked goods segment gave her a foundation in understanding yeast. After the arts of farming and blending, successfully managing a myriad of yeasts to guide wine style is one the most critical elements in winemaking. It was at that point she became hooked on sensory science. Fast forward to today. She has a spice rack of yeasts from around the world and native yeasts from many top local vineyards. Her first mentor she met in college, who was a wine collector of the wines of Oregon, Bordeaux, and Germany. She wasn’t legal to drink yet. Still, she became her mentor’s assistant for his fine wine education courses. There she learned how to cellar wine and started comparative tasting of some of the world’s great wines.
VIDEO Insights: Amongst the Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes in the Rutherford Dust
When asked about the role wine consultants have in luxury winemaking, Lumgair paraphrases a role model Celia Welch. Welch is a top winemaker with Scarecrow, “It’s going to be four years before a client knows what she’s going to be doing. Four years in a barrel is the bare minimum to be able to see the results of consulting winemaker’s influence.” You’re dealing with external factors in the vineyard, the vintage, the vintner. So many different factors and variables involved in making great wine that shows its terroir.
Her magic toolkit? A plan and a refined palate for what she calls spice rack elements. “I use yeast, clones, AVA, barrel and the blend components of how you approach everything and time in the barrel.” It all makes a difference in how the end product turns out. Blends often show a key difference with even a half a percent shift, making the best even better.
“For me, demonstrating my work with fine wine lovers, I compare my making luxury tier wine to being like a couture fashion designer. (Ironic, since I was kind of a joke in 4-H as far as sewing. it was my mom’s talent, not mine.) Being a winemaker who is extremely careful going for the ultimate expression of the vineyard is just like being a fashion designer going for the ultimate expression of this creative idea each season, sourcing materials with hard-earned knowledge from around the globe, then painstakingly working by hand on each detail and fitting until the many designs are ready to cap the collection’s runway show.
It starts all the way back in site-specific rows and micro-sites, what is the potential for me to achieve in this vineyard? It’s just like me going to China or India looking for a certain type of linen or a certain gauge of silk and notions.”
When you take on a consulting winemaking gig, you can inherit a vineyard chosen by someone else. Julie explains, “The right soil, the aspect to the sun, the position of the vineyard, the drainage, the canopy management and way light and air touch each grape cluster, all can be factors of success or point to potential difficulties to deal with later. Like a concert pianist, you need to get the juice of the grapes to realize a certain level of complexity, so it results in a worthy end product.” You learn how to be the vine whisperer.
She also likens being a consulting winemaker to making sushi. “You can screw up fresh fish 100 ways to Sunday. You can also screw up sewing perfect fabric.” The same goes for grapes. There are so many layers involved needing to be in harmony. Harmony with the vintner, with the collection, with the style of the vintage and the mood.
Sourcing is so essential.
Sourcing is finding great grapes, grown well, and negotiating a contract to buy. In a place like Napa Valley where real estate is pricey and demand for grapes high, this can be challenging. Keeping an eye on what the farmers are doing helps quality, but you’ve got to keep a handle on the fruit at all times. Lumgair knows the key factor to selling a collection is knowing how the wines you pieced together so intricately fits. It has to compliment the collection. You are also working with client taste profiles. So understanding both an owner’s and their customer’s taste profile is key. From how tannic or how fruit forward a client may want it to drawing more nuances out of the wine through her spice rack she’s got to be spot on.
And spot on she is. She’s received numerous awards over her years of winemaking. Her most recent in collaboration with J. Moss Wines recently received 92+ and 93+ point ratings from Robert Parker on J. Moss 2015 single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons from Coombsville and Rutherford in barrel. 92 point ratings from James Suckling for the following wines, 2012 J. Moss Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Steffensen Vineyard and the 2012 J. Moss Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Spicer Vineyard, and 93+ points from Robert Parker Jr. for her Ideology Cellars Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon after her Premiere Napa Valley blend was noted by Wine Spectator as one of their top “dazzling 2013’s”. Rolling up her sleeves, both her 2014 Ideology ANV and PNV lots doubled their 2013’s bids.
She’s the fairy godmother of Vintners. The vision is a cooperative one. By the time someone reaches out they usually have a vision of where they are and where they want to go. She talks to them about their most memorable wines, the places they’ve visited where they’ve had their most memorable experiences. As well as talking to them about places they’ve visited where their passion arose. The questions are essential to building a roadmap to help the vintner realize their goals. Then, it’s time to dig into the details and make magic.
The Wine Siren, Kelly Mitchell