In July, 2006, Robert Pecota and his family sold their Calistoga winery and estate vineyard, established in 1978, to Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson fame. It will become the home of the high-end Atalon brand of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The Pecota family has retained ownership of the Robert Pecota Winery name and all Pecota-branded wines, and has acquired another property close-by on Bennett Lane just across the Napa River from Chateau Montelena. Plans are to plant 22 of the 27 acres to primarily Cabernet, while devoting the rest to a home and small winery. Until the new winery is operational, the family will continue to produce wines at its former facility.
Interview conducted with Robert Pecota at The Grape Bistro & Wine Bar
Could you tell me about your winemaking background.
Well it all started in my youth, which has long since abandoned me [laughs]. I, at age 19 became an apprentice for the Hills Family who made coffee in San Francisco, and I learnt how to become a “coffee cupper” and coffee taster. In the meantime, I had moved away from home being the youngest in a very large family and in our apartment my roommate, Malcolm Dunlap and I made our 1st garbage can full of wine when I was 19, now I’m almost 71, and I haven’t missed a vintage since!
I really thoroughly enjoyed and honed my tasting skills, what they call cupping skills in the coffee and tea business. Really started to get into teas, and The Hills Family treated me very well and I had a great position there as coffee buyer.
Really funny story; I was going to play professional baseball until I found out until what playing in a class A team in Oklahoma meant and so I decided I wasn’t going to leave San Francisco to do that!
Ruben Hills the President of the Company insisted that I should be getting some education, so he paid for me to go to University of San Francisco where I got an Undergraduate Degree in Economics. Fell in love with academia, and so enrolled in the PhD program at Berkley. Hated it after 3 months!
So I went to the Dean of the newly formed business school at Berkley, and he convinced me that I should get this new degree, this new program, that I should get a Master of Business Administration. So I got an MBA in 1965 out of 8,000 graduating students, I think there were 17 MBAs out of that population.
Went back to Hills as a coffee buyer, and was happy as a bug in a rug. In the mean-time I honed my skills on wine, took courses from the University of California Davis, learning about vineyards, viticulture, and still making wine every year. By then I had an exotic hand crank Italian destemmer, I was using stainless steel tanks, actual oak barrels for my wine.
I got a call in the early ’70s from Nestle, they said “…we know you’re a wine nut, and we’re about to buy a winery in the Napa Valley, would you like to come to work for us?”
So my wife moved to Napa and I went to work for Beringer. Bought a vineyard in 1971, learned how to drive tractors, learned how to grow grapes, went back to UCD, did some more work in viticulture and enology and had a very good position at Beringer until I decided I needed to be on my own. So in ’78 I made my own first “true” vintage.
My two daughters were both with me in business up until 2006. I was getting ready to wind down a little bit, play more golf, do more travel. Then my daughter came to me in early 2006, she was slated to take over as General Manager. She said “You know what Dad? I don’ t think I want to run a 30,000 case winery with seven employees, I think I want to spend my time raising my kids.
So we as a family decided to sell, so we sold in July of 2006.
I then went down the road, bought a smaller 28 acre vineyard, and that’s where I currently am. I reduced my goals from 25,00 cases to 2,500 cases which means I’ve eliminated a lot of markets. I was selling in 25 States 10 years ago, and now I’m selling in 6. Florida being one of them.
That’s more based on relationships though, where you have a really good relationship with your wine distributor, that’s where you want to be!
So now I’m down to a 2-person operation, I’m on the production side, my right-hand gal Brenda Wild runs the business operation, and we’re living happily ever after.
What would you say is your winemaking philosophy?
I’ve always had more of a European orientation, I think that comes from my early days and my collecting European wines.
Also, and he was a really close personal friend, in fact I spoke at his wake at Robert Mondavi winery.
Robert Mondavi founded Robert Mondavi winery in 1966, based on the principle that 100 years prior to that, Napa Valley wines that were being made by the European immigrants that came to find gold. Well they didn’t find any gold but they found “…wow, look at this place it reminds me of Italy/France, why don’t we grow grapes here!” His style was always European, and I think that influenced me a lot.
So you’re not going to find Robert Pecota wines to be overly oaked, you’re not going to find Robert Pecota wines to be overly extracted, you’re not going to find them to be too high in alcohol, what I’m looking for is balance, good acidity, and wines that go really well with food.
What would you say are the biggest challenges you have seen in winemaking in recent years?
It’s grown too fast in the last decade, all the excesses that you saw in the economy, you saw in the stock market, in the housing bubble, prices of boats, prices of meals, prices of everything! It got out of hand.
So, the industry right now in 2009 is going through an adjustment, a reconciliation or what I call a reality-check. There are too many negociant labels in the Napa Valley, too many people that don’t have vineyards, that don’t have wineries, but they have labels, they expect to get $80 a bottle for their 1st release Cabernet! They rely strictly on what the critics are saying, what the Parkers and the Spectators, and all these people are saying rather than focusing on building a consumer base.
So, the wine industry in my area, in Sonoma, in Napa, in the North Coast is going through a real period of readjustment where there is too much wine, the wine has been priced too high, the growers have been overpaid, and so all these things are adjusting right now so we can get back to some normality. After all that is through, then we can start the upward path of growth again.
Another thing I’d like to say is that I see the real young winemakers, I’m talking about the kids in their mid-20’s, I see them not focusing so much on the ego of the business, but focusing on the craft. So the new winemakers are seeing these excesses, excesses in flavors, excesses in alcohol, excesses in prices and so on. They are starting to say“No, that’s not what I’m interested in. What I’m really interested in is crafting really well balanced wines”
So if you believe as I do that life is a spiral, and you are constantly revisiting things, you might be revisiting things on a higher plain, or revisiting them on a lower plain, but nobody is reinventing the wheel. You’re circling around, and coming back to revisit them, I think on this re visitation, the younger people are becoming more like I was when I was their age, when I was coming into the industry, when nobody was drinking wine. When I left the coffee business people said I was crazy! “You’re leaving this great job, to go into the WHAT-BUSINESS!?!?”
I see more of that craft base, more of that organic base from the young.
You see it in the local-vore movement, people that are saying I want to buy products that are in season, that are grown within a couple 100 miles of my home. So this emphasis on local, this emphasis on fresh, Michael Pollens books (The Ominivores Dilemma), all these books are starting to refocus this generation on fresher foods, or organic foods and that’s reflected in the attitudes of the young winemakers.
If you could be born again, are there any other regions in the world where you would contemplate making wine?
Well this is very interesting, I go to Europe a couple times a year. I was there as a graduate student during the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was still up, and I actually went through Checkpoint Charlie where the U.S tank was facing off with the Soviet tank. This was a student sponsored tour, we went to east Berlin, Moscow, Leningrad, Warsaw (Poland) and that’s at the height of the Cold War 1965. Now, I’ve been really interested in Europe since the reintegration of Eastern Germany, so if I was really young, I would go to Berlin. On the wine-side I would look at some of the wines from Hungary, Austria, East Germany, and what used to be Czechoslovakia all of which I think have unbelievable potential!
Favorite food and wine pairing?
I make a late harvest dessert wine named after daughter Andrea, Moscato d’Andrea. It’s kind of a Auslese-style Muscat. Moscato and a seared Foie Gras are absolutely perfect. Sauvignon Blanc with some of those Apalachicola oysters I was eating yesterday.
If you aren’t drinking your own wine, what is your drink of choice? Wine or otherwise?
My choice is wine. Now though as I get older, it’s good to have a dry martini on the rocks to end the day. Not a big beer drinker. I drink a lot of imported wines from my colleagues wines from all over the world
Imported? What do you see that’s coming from overseas that interests you?
Well…I’m really happy with what I see as the renaissance of the Spanish wine industry, I think there’s some wonderful wines coming out of Spain now. I think there’s some wonderful wines coming out of, as I say, weird places like Eastern Europe. The wines from Argentina, I’ve never been impressed with, and don’t think I’ll ever be impressed with. Chilean wines on the other-hand, or South African wines, there are some very interesting new producers there.
It’s the old adage: Why can’t we grow Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay in Jacksonville? Well, God didn’t mean for that to happen because everything grows in it’s own climatic zone.
Think about it, most of the fine wine growing regions in the world are on the west coasts of continents and close to the ocean. So for example, in South America, the climate in Chile presents a much more favorable climate compared to the climate of Argentina which I believe is much too hot. Even when you go to Australia, it’s the West Coast of Australia where the best wines are made, the West Coast of the United States, the West Coast of Europe etc.Out of his new facility, Robert Pecota currently produces a delicious and extremely affordable Sauvignon Blanc, which can be found at Wine Warehouse stores around Jacksonville. Keep a lookup for his Petite Sirah which is enroute to Florida Distributors as we speak. All wines are distributed by Stacole Fine Wines.
For more information on Robert Pecota, visit RobertPecotaWinery.com