Calluna Vineyards: From corporate to [wine] country life

David checking grape ripeness in the vineyard.

David checking grape ripeness in the vineyard.

David Jeffrey is an old-school vigneron. He lives on a vineyard he planted in Chalk Hill, one of the warmer Sonoma appellations, and makes exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and blends from the vines right outside his door. But before his idyllic wine country life, David lived and worked in the fast-paced finance world of New York.

When I learned David’s story—how he turned in his suit and tie for an enology textbook and a sturdy pair of work boots—I immediately knew that I wanted to share it (I'll admit, I identified with it). Then, when I tried David’s wines, I knew I had to share them with Vinfluence club members. They're ripe, but restrained for California wines, and reveal layer after layer of flavor. David's wines are inspired by the blends of Bordeaux and I hope you'll be inspired by David's pursuit of his dream to make world class wines as you read my interview with him below.

What is wine to you?

Wine to me is the beauty of the vineyard and the cooperation between man and nature to make a product that can be uniquely tied to the land it is from – a product which is as old as ancient history and as new as the most recent vintage, evolving over time to always keep one interested.

When did you first get interested in wine?

In my late 20s I was working for Seagram in NYC in their corporate treasury and, even though I had nothing to do with their wine division, they were willing to put me through the top wine appreciation course taught in the city. I thought wine as interesting and mysterious, so I took the course and it was a great learning experience. After the course, I kept reading about wine and started visiting wine regions. I started collecting around 1984, that was when Robert Parker made his reputation by declaring the 1982 Bordeaux the vintage of the century. I became a pretty serious collector of wine.

When did you decide to make the leap to move to wine country and pursue winemaking?

My wife’s business sells to the wine industry and we had always talked about some day moving to wine country, perhaps when we retired. By the late 90s I was involved with 2 start ups which were meant to change the world in finance, but when the world did not want to change, I started considering doing something more down to earth. At the same time, the wine industry was growing more important for my wife’s company, so it just worked out. We decided to make the move in 2001 versus waiting for some time in the future which might never materialize. Fresno was our first stop–my wife’s company had an operation there and I enrolled in Fresno State’s Enology and Viticulture program.

What did your family say when you told them you wanted to leave your established career to make wine?

Everyone was supportive, except perhaps my father who said that if we were taking the kids across the country, he and my mother might as well move to Florida.  My wife and I were most concerned about our 3 kids who were 7-9 years old at that time.  We sat them down and told them we were going to move to Fresno, CA and that we would have a pool at our new house.  We just assumed this would be true, as every house in Fresno seemed to have a pool.  That worked, and the kids were on board.

What was it like going back to school and finding yourself interning alongside a bunch of 20-somethings?

Going back to school to study something you are really interested in is great – college is wasted on the young, as they say.  However, there was at least one occasion when I was startled by the age gap with my peers.  I was talking with one of my good buddies about the next term, I asked him if he would take the “Wine Sensory” course. He replied that he couldn’t because he wasn’t yet 21. I had to gasp in realizing that I was more than twice as old as my friend.

What took you to Bordeaux?

During my last year at Fresno State, I did an independent study comparing the wines of Napa and Bordeaux. The idea was: even when the grapes are the same, the wines are often very different – are the differences just due to terroir or are they more driven by the choices made in the vineyard and winery? On the California side, I worked off and on for a few months with Fisher Vineyards, which has vineyards in both Napa and Sonoma. Whitney Fisher and their famed consultant, Mia Klein, were very generous in providing input to my project.

In Bordeaux, I worked at Chateau Quinault in St. Emilion and it was an absolutely terrific experience.  I lived at the Chateau, ate all my meals with the family and other workers, and spent hours of time with Alain Raynaud and others there who were very supportive and great instructors.  Dr. Raynaud is a prominent consultant in Bordeaux, too, and he knows everybody there.  He  liked the idea of my project and so introduced me to many people who could answer all my questions.  Dr. Raynaud pointed out that he too came to wine later in life – he started his career as a medical doctor after having grown up in Pomerol.

So many new wine brands these days start out by buying fruit—why did you decide to plant your own vines and wait for them to mature? It takes so much longer to get that first vintage to market…

I like the so called French “vigneron” model where the winemaker and family live on the vineyard, tend the vineyard and make wines just from those vineyards. If I was going to take the leap to leave the east coast and pursue winemaking, I really wanted to do that right. Great wine starts in the vineyard, of course, so I wanted to be able to lay it out in my own way and to grow the vines.

What’s the story behind the name “Calluna”?

Calluna is the botantical name for the Heather plant.  We were originally going to name the property after a girl named Heather, a family friend who died young.  But we found that it and any version of it, such as Heather Ridge, was already trademarked.  We started to give up on the idea, but then we stumbled across the botanical name: Calluna. My wife suggested we try that and people liked it even better.

How would you describe your approach to vineyard management? Do you follow a particular philosophy?

My number one driving consideration is that we live on the vineyard and raised our kids there, so we treat it well. We are now certified Sustainable under the Sonoma County Wine Growers’ program.  For the last 2+ years, we have been managing organically.  While we have not yet gone through the process of certification, we are committed to organic viticulture.

How would you characterize your approach to winemaking?

I want to let the fruit show itself, so I am very moderate in my approach.  I don’t like extended or greatly shortened fermentations.  I don’t like too aggressive or too passive cap management.  I am moderate with new oak also – I have worked all year on growing the grapes, why would I want them to smell like oak wood as finished wine?  All in all, I use very traditional winemaking as a way to let the fruit speak, year in and year out.

Do any of your Calluna vintages really stand out to you?

I am very proud of the 2011 Calluna Estate because I think we made a very fine wine in what is considered the worst vintage in California over the last 20 years or so.  2011 was a cool vintage and many were hoping to hang their fruit into November.  But rain hit in early October followed by muggy, misty weather, unusual for Northern California.  Many problems arose in the vineyards.  Fortunately, we had picked nearly all our fruit before the bad weather and were able to harvest the rest soon thereafter.  We got our fruit ripe and it shows in a beautifully balanced wine.

What is your favorite thing about working in wine?

Simply walking through our vineyards during the growing season and witnessing the vines progress.