Wilson Foreigner: In Pursuit of Terroir Gold

Wilson Foreigner is a wine project that pays homage to California’s history of winemaking and the search for parcels of terroir gold. That vision is part of what attracted me to the brand–the wines themselves were what kept my attention. With wine country native David Wilson at the helm, Wilson Foreigner makes exceptionally fresh and juicy, yet complex wines that evolve. Their wines are great on their own, but also incredibly food friendly—with or without food, they’ll disappear way too fast! Enjoy my interview with David, below.

When did you first become interested in viticulture and wine?

Growing up on my family’s ranch, Rancho Chimiles, I was exposed to grape growing as soon as I could walk through the vineyards, but I wasn’t particularly interested in making or drinking wine until my third year studying at Cal Poly SLO.  That year I took more focused courses in viticulture, fermentation science, and wine marketing.  I also completed my first harvest internship at Trefethen Vineyards, where I worked mainly in the cellar but was given an opportunity to participate in blind tastings and I started to discover what I enjoyed about different wines.  Learning about the focus on quality over yield in the farming, and how rewarding it was to have wines from each vintage to share with people, motivated me to work in wine.

Did you ever aspire to do something outside of the wine industry?

I had some ideas about farming other crops such as coffee, tropical fruits, and citrus, and being able to work in different hemispheres through the year, but by the time I graduated college I was certain I wanted to focus on wine.

What is the origin of Wilson Foreigner?

It all started with a 2005 harvest in the Western Cape of South Africa when Chris Alheit and I were interns together. We found that we shared the same perspectives on wine and life, and we immediately became close friends. We also worked together, alongside Chris’s future wife Suzaan, during the 2006 vintage in Napa at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  Then time passed—I went back to South Africa for Chris and Suzaan’s wedding, I married Christine in 2010, and we both started raising families—but we remained in close touch. We always talked about working together some day and, in late 2014, Chris said it was time. With the support and input from Christine and Suzaan, Wilson Foreigner’s first vintage was in 2015. We hope to build it and sustain it for our children.

I love your wine labels! Can you talk about the character depicted on them? 

The illustrations on our labels depict gold miners—or prospectors—from the mid-19th century in California with a modern twist. We want to tie to California’s history and to its winemaking heritage, and also to the idea of “prospecting” unique parcels of this state for beautiful wines.

As a winemaker, do you follow any particular philosophy?

Our philosophy is to do as little as possible in the winemaking and to make fresh and pure table wines, with acidity and energy, and properly represent the single vineyards that they’re sourced from.

Valdiguié is a rather unusual varietal, what inspired you to make it?

It is an obscure grape now, but it was a foundation for the modern success of Napa Valley in the 1960s and 1970s. Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski both produced and promoted “Napa Gamay” during that era, and it helped fund their early Cabernet plantings. The particular block at Rancho Chimiles has major significance to our family, being the first one planted by my parents in 1972. In 2002 80% of the block was removed and replanted to Cabernet. My parents set aside a portion of that year’s crop of Valdiguie and a winemaker friend produced a house wine for us from it. I loved sharing that wine and I knew if I ever made wine it would have to be from that block. It was a juicy, bright, and lively wine that appealed to everyone who tried it. We’re grateful that two acres remain.

How did you choose the vineyards you buy fruit from?

For Rorick, where we source our Albariño, we were exploring the Foothills to find a white grape to work with. Christine was familiar with the Rorick site as she grew up in the nearby town, Murphys, and another winemaker introduced us to Matthew Rorick, of Forlorn Hope Wines, whose family had recently purchased the vineyard.

As for the Del Barba Vineyard, we were specifically looking for an old-vine parcel to work with in Contra Costa. Some of the oldest vineyards in California are planted there, but they are facing increased pressure from housing development. The parcel we source our Zinfandel from was planted in 1910 and is own-rooted.

How “hands-on” are you in the vineyards and do you have a preferred approach to vineyard management? 

Definitely the most hands-on with the Valdiguie, where we are involved day to day with all practices. With our other growers, we stay in very close touch through the season and walk our blocks frequently. Our growers are aligned with our philosophy of minimal inputs, a focus on timing of practices, and having a holistic approach to managing the land.

Are there any other vineyard sites or varietals you want to add to your portfolio?

Yes, there are heritage sites we would love to work with! Variety is a secondary consideration, but we do want to add more heritage varieties to our portfolio as well.

What was your experience with the fires that ravaged the Bay Area in 2017?

We had harvested all of our vineyards for Wilson Foreigner by mid-September, and our wines were safe in the winery. The Atlas Fire, which started Oct. 8th, threatened Rancho Chimiles and forced us to evacuate for eight days; however, due to the diligent work by Cal Fire, no buildings or vineyards were damaged.

What is your favorite thing about working in the wine industry?

For a global industry, it is actually a very small community. There are so many connections that happen, friendships, and there is so much to learn.

When you aren’t drinking wine, what are you drinking?

We like a good rye whiskey or unpeated scotch. Otherwise, during harvest a lot of Blue Bottle “Hayes Valley” espresso in the mornings and coconut water in the afternoons.

Learn more at WilsonForeigner.com